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 A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day

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Meles meles
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PostSubject: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Sun 24 Dec 2017, 09:20

It's that time of year again when, having no guests, I can try out some old recipes without worrying about making a mess, producing inedible or at least unusual-tasting food, and not having to get it all ready to serve at 7:30 pm sharp! This assay then is for something suitably seasonal and correct for today, Christmas Eve … the medieval dish, hastelettes on fysshe day.

Hastalet, hastelet, or hastelette seems to derive from the Old French, haste, the shaft of a spear, and ultimately from the Latin hasta, a spear. By the 13th century, in Middle French haste had come to mean roast meat, which was of course cooked on a spear-like metal spit, while the diminutive, hastelet, or hastlette, referred to the spit-roasted small meats, the umbles or offal. These were particularly the bits that had to be cooked shortly (in haste as it were) after butchering the animal as they wouldn’t keep. Indeed for hunted venison or boar they were often cooked and eaten immediately, al fresco, as the huntsman’s perk, although the choicer bits of offal such as the liver and kidneys were often reserved to be presented to honoured guests. Hastelette thus originally referred to the lesser offal bits, like the chitterings, (cf. in Middle French hastilles means entrails), but by the early modern period had come to mean offal generally, including the liver, kidney, heart, skirts, pluck, intestines, and all the other bits. English haslet (a speciality of Lincolnshire) is a direct ancester, although haslet is now a type of meat loaf made of spiced pork, pork offal and breadcrumbs, wrapped in caul, baked, and then usually served in slices, cold:

    

Christmas Eve, however, was one of the obligatory fish days when no meat could be eaten. About half the days in the year were non-meat days (and strictly no dairy, no eggs, and no cheese as well) with the forty meat-less days of Lent being seen as particularly tiresome. But non-meat days need not have been just boiled salt-herring – although for many people they usually were – and for the rich especially, inventive cooks could produce all sorts of fake meats and excitingly tasty fare. Moreover fish on Christmas Eve was probably not too onerous especially as it was to be followed by the roast goose, baron of beef, venison pies and boar’s head of the twelve-day Christmas feast. These fast-day hastelettes, then, are a form of fake food in that they are made to look like true meaty hastelettes but containing no meat (nor fish either) and tasting of richly-spiced preserved fruit instead of offal. I’m sure if you'd lived in the 15th century you’d have immediately got the joke.

Here’s a recipe given in one of the oldest English cook books, Liber Cure Cocorum, dating from about 1430. All the book’s recipes are written in rhyming couplets, almost certainly as an aid to memory ... for illiterate trainee cooks the verses could be read out, and the lines then recited back and so learned by heart. One can imagine the voices of the apprentices, all chanting the lines together while they pounded the spices, stirred the pots and turned the spit.

Hastelettes on fysshe day.

Take fyggus quartle, and raysyns, þo
Hole dates, almondes, rine hom also
On broche of irne, and rost hom sone;
Endone hom with ȝolkes of egges anone.


So that’s quartered figs, raisins and whole dates, threaded on an iron skewer to be roasted, while endored (gilded) with an egg-yolk batter.

That’s a rather minimalist recipe, good for an aide memoir perhaps, but it really supposes one has done it before and already knows the details. But there are a number of similar recipes in other fifteenth century court cookery books, where it was often called a ‘trayne roste’ (a trayne was another word for a roasting spit), amongst which there is this variant entitled a ‘hastelet of fruit’ (the recipe dates from about 1450 and is from Harl. Ms. 4016 in the British Library).

Take Dates and figges, and kutte hem in a peny brede; And þen take grete reysons and blanched almondes, and prik hem thorgh with a nedel into a threde of a mannys length, and one of one frute and a-noþer of anoþer frute; and þen bynde the threde with the frute A-bought a rownde spete, endelonge þe spete, in maner of an hasselet; And þen take a quarte of wyne or Ale, and fyne floure, And make batur thereof, and cast thereto pouder ginger, sugur, & saffron, pouder of Clowes, salt; And make þe batur not fully rennyng, and noþer stonding, but in þe mene, that hit may cleue, and than rost the treyne abought the fire in þe spete; And þen cast the batur on the treyne as he turneth abought the fire, so longe til þe frute be hidde in the batur; as þou castest þe batur there-on, hold a vessell vndere-nethe, for spilling of þe batur/ And whan hit is y-rosted well, hit wol seme a hasselet; And þen take hit vppe fro þe spit al hole, And kut hit in faire peces of a Span length, And serue of hit a pece or two in a dissh al note.

Like that in Liber Cure Cocorum this recipe is for spit-roasted and battered fruit and nuts, and here one crucial extra detail is given: the fruit and nuts are first threaded onto a string and then this is wound around the skewer. The batter is dribbled over it all the while the spit is turned, roasting in front of the fire, and finally the skewer is withdrawn and the long sausage-like cake cut into pieces and served. This is of course exactly the way edible entrails like chitterlings or even lengths of sausage or andoulle were often cooked: wound as a whole around the skewer rather than piercing individual pieces:

Here's a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry showing cooks preparing and cooking a variety of things, including at far right and above left, what look like shish-kebabs but could also depict lengths of lumpy hastelettes wound onto spits.



So that’s my little culinary project for Christmas Eve ... hastelettes on a fysshe day.
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Sun 24 Dec 2017, 21:18

Here’s that 15th century recipe again in translation from the Middle English:

Hastelet of fruit.

Take dates and figs and cut “in a penny bread” [a penny bread was a fist-sized bread roll – so this expression makes no sense at all and I suspect someone over the past 600 years has simply made a transcription error – other recipes indicate the fruit should be “i-quarterid” ie quartered, or similarly cut into pieces]. Then take large raisins and blanched almonds and prick them through with a needle and so [string them] onto a thread of a man’s [height] in length: one of one fruit and another of another fruit, and then bind the thread with the fruit about a round spit, along the [length of] the spit, in the manner of a haselet. And then take a quart of wine or ale, and fine flour, and make batter with them, and add powdered ginger, sugar, saffron, powdered cloves, and salt. Make the batter not too runny, but neither [too] stiff, but in middle, so that it cleaves, ie sticks. Then roast the spitted ‘treyne’ before the fire on the spit. And cast on the batter over the ‘treyne’ as it turns in front of the fire, until the fruits are hidden/covered by the batter as you drop the batter on. And when it is well-cooked, it will look like [real] hastelet. Then take it whole off the spit. And cut into pieces of a span in length [that would usually mean a hand’s span, ie width, but those would be rather thick slices - a finger span might make more sense]. And serve one or two pieces on their own in a dish.

That seems fairly straight forward. Although it is not stated I suspect the cooks would have used dried figs, but having none I used fresh (well defrosted actually) figs from the garden and in place of ‘grete reysons’ I used dried plums (finest pruneaux d’Agen). I immediately encountered a few practical problems: 15th century dried fruits might well have been tougher but my figs kept tearing apart when I tried threading them onto the string. The almonds too all split as soon as I tried to pierce them with a needle. So in the end I went for a slightly chunkier hastelette made from whole preserved dates, dried apricots and dried plums, all strung onto ordinary cotton thread.

The result was a long hippy-style necklace, rather like the chunky sort of thing Theresa May often wears:



This I then carefully wound, spiral-wise, onto a sturdy metal skewer:



While the above recipe uses an egg-free batter (it being intended for a fast day) the hastelet recipe in Liber Cure Cocorum, instructed the cook "to endore them with the yolks of eggs". This was a common technique used to finish spit roast meat, not just haselettes, in a layer of spicy yellowish batter, and endoring batters were probably stock ingredients in most high status kitchens. For example the endoring batter in the hastelette recipe is pretty well identical to the batter in the recipe below (taken from the same manuscript cookbook) for coating a spit-roast chicken, except for the deliberately omitted eggs in the fast-day hastelette recipe:

Chike endored.
Take a chike, and drawe him, and roste him, And lete the fete be on, and take awey the hede;
þen make batur of yolkes of eyron and floure, and caste þere-to pouder of ginger, and peper, saffron and salt, and pouder hit faire til hit be rosted ynogh.

Note also that since this batter was usually used for coating meat dishes, most diners probably got the joke when they ate the non-meat hastelette.

I made up my batter with the yolks of six eggs, a cup of white flour, and some blonde beer, made to about the runniness of a sponge-cake mix. I spiced it with powdered ginger, pepper, ground cloves, some sugar (demerara, ground fine), a pinch or so of salt and, instead of expensive saffron, added principally for its colour, I used a little turmeric as I reckoned the taste of either saffron or turmeric would be lost behind that of the ginger.

I then even managed to arrange a way to properly spit-roast the thing in front of an open wood fire:



TOP TIP 1 - for all you hipster log fire enthusiasts: pick your logs with care. For heating I usually burn all sorts of stuff as the forest here is mostly of oak and chestnut but with a diverse secondary mix of hazel, ash, maple, birch, walnut, wild cherry, box and holly. But for this I carefully chose my best oak and walnut logs … they burn hotter and, unlike chestnut in particular, they are not prone to spitting and sending hot embers flying out of the open hearth onto you, the rug, the furniture, or, heaven forefend, the cooking meal. Also make sure the fire is very hot before starting as it’s not easy to put on extra logs while cooking without getting cinders on the food.

TOP TIP 2 - Constantly turning and basting with the batter single-handed was not easy. Unless you have a ratchet or braking device the spit always settles into the its most stable position with the same side facing the fire, and so you have to constantly hold it (with a thick oven glove) from revolving back, while with the other hand spooning on the batter. If at all possible find a willing friend … or even an unwilling one. Constantly turning and basting with the batter it took about 40 minutes. It was very hot work and that’s with just a small domestic hearth in my dining room: those medieval turn-spit boys must have been fairly well cooked themselves!



When all the fruit was covered, the batter had set and was just starting to colour, I took it off the fire and allowed it to cool a bit before easing it off the spit and cutting into slices.

TOP TIP 3 -  If you firmly attach the threat to the spit, when the cooked  ‘hastelette is slid off, the string should pull out of the fruit and stay behind stuck on the skewer. otherwise you’re likely to get little dental-flossettes with every bite!

Et voila, the resulting dish …



… and very tasty it was too: a bit like a very rich fruitcake but with a crunchy sweet-spicy crust, and looking much more like a real edible Yule log, than any of the modern, shop-bought, chocolate-sponge/Swiss-roll travesties.
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Fri 29 Dec 2017, 20:03

I've just discovered that modern relations of these English spit-roasted cakes are still alive and well in the rest of Europe. Not that far from me in the French Haute Pyrénées there's the traditional 'gateau à la broche', which is cooked on a conical 'spit' over a wood fire:



... and there are similar cakes made in Germany (baumkuchen - literally tree-cake), in Hungary (kürtőskalács), in Sweden (spettekaka), in the Czech Republic (trdelník), in Poland (spékaçze) etc... These are all batter cakes unlike the fruit-filled Plantagenet 'trayne rost', nevertheless it still seems that it is largely only Britain that has completely forgotten it's medieval heritage of spit-roasted sweet puddings/cakes.
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Sat 30 Dec 2017, 18:15

Meles meles,

thanks for all your work put in this survey...I read it all with interest...
As I didn't understand "hastelettes" I put it in Google...and from the 81 entries...the first was:
https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED20063
And the second was:
https://reshistorica.forumotion.com/t1200-a-taste-of-history-hastelettes-on-fysshe-day


Kind regards from Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Sat 06 Jan 2018, 18:09

@PaulRyckier wrote:
Meles meles,

As I didn't understand "hastelettes" I put it in Google...and from the 81 entries...the first was:
https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED20063
And the second was:
https://reshistorica.forumotion.com/t1200-a-taste-of-history-hastelettes-on-fysshe-day

Kind regards from Paul.

Quite frankly Paul, I'm just chuffed that my cooked hastelettes didn't look much different from those made by the eminent food historian - Ivan Day

Here's his interpretation of the 15th century recipe:

     

... and here's mine:

   
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Sat 06 Jan 2018, 19:19

I knew it Meles meles, I knew it...
that you could compete with the best "chefs"...

Best regards from your friend Paul and "doe zo voort" (carry on that (good) way)
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PostSubject: Re: A taste of history – Hastelettes on fysshe day   Mon 08 Jan 2018, 10:48

Your version looks better - fruity bits look a nicer colour.
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