Friday, November 5, 2010

Wood Pigeon in a Rare Fowl ‘Fricase' circa 1684

One of the first posts I did on this blog was about Pumpion Pye  from Robert May’s 1684 cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook.  Nearly a year later, as Lost Past Remembered approaches its first birthday, it seems a good time to revisit Mr. May.  Elizabeth David called his book “a most beautiful piece of cookery literature”.  Alan Davidson (who compiled the Oxford Companion to Food) said in his introduction to a new edition of May’s book:  “It is the most comprehensive panorama of cookery in upper-class English households of its time”.

I knew food Historian Ken Albala was a great May fan. When I told him I was attempting to make a modern version of a rather complicated May dish, he enjoined me to do it right and not to dumb-down the recipe or balk at the ingredients… ok, one ingredient… lamb’s stones.  For the uninitiated, they are lamb testicles and not easy to come by.  I was told by Catskill Merino  at Union Square, NYC (who supplied them for me with some difficulty), that they are tossed out as waste by most slaughterhouses.  What a pity.  The great chef/author Anissa Helou gushed about them on her blog and explained how to prepare them.  You know what, they are spectacular with a creamy texture not unlike sweetbreads. I am so glad that I heeded Ken’s sage advice and obtained them (and Petunia, my Saint Bernard, is crazy about the left-overs!) and made the recipe as close to the original as I could.

And what of Robert May?  His life is laid out quite thoroughly in the introduction to  The accomplisht cook - or, The art & mystery of cookery --  written when May was in his 70’s (he may have lived into his 90’s—his date of death is a little vague):

“He was born in the year of our Lord 1588. His Father being one of the ablest Cooks in his time, and his first Tutor in the knowledge and practice of Cookery; under whom having attained to some perfection in this Art, the old Lady Dormer sent him over into France, where he continued five years, being in the Family of a noble Peer, and first President of Paris; where he gained not only the French Tongue but also bettered his Knowledge in his Cookery, and returning again into England, was bound an Apprentice in London to Mr. Arthur Hollinsworth in Newgate Market, one of the ablest Work-men in London, Cook to the Grocers Hall and Star Chamber. His Apprentiship being out, the Lady Dormer sent for him to be her Cook under Father (who then served that Honourable Lady) where were four Cooks more, such Noble Houses were then kept, the glory of that, and the shame of this present Age; then were those Golden Days wherein were practised the Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery; then was Hospitality esteemed, Neighbourhood preserved, the Poor cherished, and God honoured; then was Religion less talkt on, and more practised; then was Atheism & Schism less in fashion: then did men strive to be good, rather then to seem so. Here he continued till the Lady Dormer died, and then went again to London, and served the Lord Castlehaven, after that the Lord Lumley, that great lover and knower of Art, who wanted no knowledge in the discerning this mystery; next the Lord Montague in Sussex; and at the beginning of these wars, the Countess of Kent, then Mr. Nevel of Crissen Temple in Essex, whose Ancestors the Smiths (of whom he is descended) were the greatest maintainers of Hospitality in all those parts; nor doth the present M. Nevel degenerate from their laudable examples. Divers other Persons of like esteem and quality hath he served; as the Lord Rivers, Mr. John Ashburnam of the Bed-Chambers, Dr. Steed in Kent, Sir Thomas Stiles of Drury Lane in London, Sir Marmaduke Constable in York-shire, Sir Charles Lucas; and lastly the Right Honourable the Lady Englefield, where he now liveth.”

The Dormers were great patrons, humanitarians and food lovers and May owes his career to their generosity, sending him as they did to Paris and London to broaden his horizons.   May practiced his art in kitchens like the one at Coudray House in Sussex (where he cooked beginning in 1630).  But I think his intended audience would not be his employers -- rather his professional peers.

In his preface, May acknowledged this when this he gave his reasons for writing the book: “TO you first, most worthy Artists, I acknowledg one of the chief Motives that made me to adventure this Volume to your Censures, hath been to testifie my gratitude to your experienced Society; nor could I omit to direct it to you, as it hath been my ambition, that you should be sensible of my Proficiency of Endeavours in this Art. To all honest well intending Men of our Profession, or others, this Book cannot but be acceptable, as it plainly and profitably discovers the Mystery of the whole Art; for which, though I may be envied by some that only value their private Interests above Posterity, and the publick good, yet God and my own Conscience would not permit me to bury these my Experiences with my Silver Hairs in the Grave: and that more especially, as the advantages of my Education hath raised me above the Ambitions of others, in the converse I have had with other Nations, who in this Art fall short of what I have known experimented by you my worthy Country men.”

He believed, because of the good fortune of his erudition and experience, that he had an extraordinarily rich and diverse body of work and was honor bound to share it with others so that it would not die with him.

May wrote The Accomplisht Cook or the Art & Mystery of Cooking during the Restoration. Although his cooking had roots in the English past, it was also nurtured by the cuisines of at least 3 other countries – French, Spanish and Italian (he could read in 4 languages—quite remarkable for the time). Additionally, we moderns tend to forget that through the apprentice system of the time, you could learn from someone with a direct line to recipes and techniques and stories from kitchens of the Middle Ages.  Apprenticing in 2 countries was rare.  

May drew from all of these influences as well as fresh new ones, like La Varenne’s (1615-78) 1651 cookbook, Le Cuisinier François (the first French cookbook translated into English in 1653).  He even pinched a few recipes from La Varenne and others (scholar Marcus Bell felt 8% of the recipes were ‘borrowed’ -- somewhat forgivable given the breadth of the book).   Whatever the provenance of the recipes, the vision was singular and thoroughly May’s own.

The dish that caught my eye and fancy was A Rare Fricase.   Something about the unusual combination of ingredients and his reputation made me want to see what it would be like.  In this dish, May’s use of spice was muted – with only nutmeg, mace and pepper being used and not a whole battery of exotics as had been the fashion when May began cooking.  May danced to his own,  aristocratic tune. This sauce with orange and egg has a little of the feeling of hollandaise, and it is wickedly good… he was an artist.

I was looking forward to working with pigeon after having pigeon breast in a fabulous salad in a Glastonbury, UK gastro-pub, Who’d A Thought It this summer.

As always, when I need to find something wild and wonderful, I go to D’Artagnan … in this case they had a wild Scottish Wood pigeon. Coursing through heather and Scottish forests gives it terroir on the hoof (or claw as may be).  It has the taste of place that gives it an amazing depth and flavor that a farmed bird doesn’t have. It is dark and dusky, more like venison than a bird. For my ‘peeper” I used D’Artagnan’s poussin that are only a little bigger than a chick at 3 weeks, delicate and succulent.  It’s an ebony/ivory combination.

I believe the formula would be great with Cornish hens if you can’t get the pigeon and poussin—but it’s easy to get them sent by mail from D’Artagnan. If finding ‘stones’ are a problem I understand that Middle Eastern butchers often carry them, so if you live in a large metropolitan area you may be able to find them. If you can’t, stick with sweetbreads and oysters as the fried garnishes.  Bone the pigeon as much as possible (the whole bird is the size of a baseball and the bones are very tiny - nearly like fish bones), leaving just the leg and wing attached… the breast of the pigeon is best medium-rare, over-cooking makes it ‘liverish’.  The sauce is creamy but not too thick and redolent of orange and warm spices… really lovely. 

You can try carving your orange if you wish to be authentic.  Should you make the original with 12 birds, the carved fruit would be in the center of the platter with gold leaf, “gooseberries, cockscombs, ratafia biscuits, comfits and lemon slices”, says Ken Albala.  Although there are a few steps and unusual ingredients, it really isn’t that difficult to make and the result is so satisfying… a real taste of history!

A Rare Fricase, based on Robert May’s 1684 recipe Serves 2

1 poussin  
½ c white wine
3 T cognac
1 c water
2 T salt

6T butter
1/3 pound sweetbreads, parboiled peeled and cubed* (Mine are from Grazin Angus Acres)
1 lamb testicle, peeled (there are 2 layers to peel, btw), parboiled and cubed (from Catskill Merino)
6 oysters
½ c flour
6 asparagus, sliced in half and parboiled
Marrow from 1 marrowbone, uncooked
2 T pistachios
1 c stock (lamb, beef or chicken)**
1/3 c white wine
¼ t nutmeg
Salt & pepper
¼ t mace
1 clove garlic
2 egg yolks, raw
¼ c verjus*** or wine vinegar
juice of 1orange
1 small orange, sliced or carved
1 carrot sliced decoratively for garnish
2 T sliced almonds
4 rounds of toast

Slice the birds in half.  Remove most of the bones from the pigeon and poussin leaving the leg and wing. Marinate the pigeon and the poussin in wine, water, cognac and salt for a few hours or overnight.  Remove from the brine and pat dry.  Sauté the birds in 3 T butter (a cast iron skillet works well for this) to brown over medium high heat, turn.  Cook the pigeon another 2-3 minutes over a medium flame and remove, let the chicken cook 4 more minutes then run them under a broiler, skin side up to brown for a few moments, then remove and tent (the poussin may require a little more time than the pigeon).

Flour the sweetbreads (reserve 1/3 for the sauce) oysters and lamb stones and season with salt and pepper.

Sauté the marrow, remove what remains, then add 3 T butter and the sweetbreads and oysters and lamb stone, fry till crisp and remove Set aside and keep warm.   

Sauté reserved sweetbread and pistachios.

Add stock to the pan you cooked the birds in with nutmeg, pepper, garlic, white wine, mace and let the flavors mingle.

Add egg yolks to verjus, blend, add to stock and heat gently.

When thickened, add orange juice and toss in the asparagus to warm.

Place rounds of toast on plates then place the birds on the toasts and add the oysters and sweetbreads.

Arrange the orange (sliced or carved), asparagus, pistachios and almonds about the birds.

Pour the sauce over the birds.

** I took the trimmings from the pigeon and poussin and combined them with a 1½ cups of stock and ½ a Portobello mushroom (sans gills) and cooked it for 2 hours on a very low heat then strained out the solids.

*** I did a whole post about verjus HERE . Although I love my recipe for it because it is richer and more complex… you can get the more conventional version easily online HERE,.   

 Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday


Anonymous said...

Lamb's testicles??? *titter*
I am surely your most immature reader daaaaaahling. I am so sorry, such a lovely and comprehensive post, and I focus on the lamb's testicles!
*kisses* HH

Diane said...

As always your posts are full of interest. This sounds an intersting recipe, I am sure it is delicious. We used to have pigeon quite often in S.Africa, have not had it for ages. Diane

Ken Albala said...

Deana, What a beautiful post, you do May great justice and I'm sure he is sitting up in his grave and taking notice right now.

One point of correction though: when the bio says Lord Lumley "who wanted no knowledge in the discerning this mystery" - that doesn't mean that he did not want to know anything about it, but that he was not lacking any knowledge. That is, he knew everything about it. It's a great compliment when the verb wanting is taken in it's older sense.

Stella said...

Hey Deana, you would love The Dekalb Farmer's Market in Atlanta. Supposedly, there is no other place quite like it in the world. I agree having traveled and grown up in Atlanta. Point is though that you would easily be able to find you lamb stones or anything else (possibly kosher and/or organic too).
Robert May's pigeon sounds wonderful though. I always say I would break my diet for some Egyptian style pigeon. Maybe this too (smile)...

Kathy Walker said...

Deanna, I absolutely love your blog!! As a lover of history and cooking how could I not?!
I enjoy each and every post. Thank you.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

You are much more adventurous than I, I'm sorry to say. I have to applaud you on sticking to the original recipe as much as possible. You've plated it beautifully!

funkiefoodie said...

Happy anniversary Deanna! You really are a marvelous blogger. Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories and recipes. All the best!

PS: your food styling is fantastic!

Barbara said...

What a marvelous post to help celebrate your first year of blogging!
It's a lovely presentation, Deana. As a whole, the dish is quite an undertaking. Taken step by step, not quite as intimidating. Having eaten pigeon since I was a child...I know how delicious that would be. Sweetbreads have long been a favorite too. Lamb testicles would be a new experience for me, but innard lovers like us would be most enthusiastic!
All pulled together with a delectable sauce!
Marvelous culinary history, Deana....wish I was in NYC to have a taste!

Linda said...

You are amazing Deana...
Every time I visit you I learn so much about food!
Happy one year anniversary to you!

Anonymous said...

A very intriguing recipe with fascinating history and ingredients! The plating looks very pretty with the orange and the greens of asparagus and parsley. I don't know if I could get a pigeon but perhaps I can try it with cornish hens.

daphne said...

another inspiration to count in! great recipe with it's history. Although I have never tasted either one, I'd love to try making them.

Sarah said...

Well, lambs testicles! I have a lamb ordered that will arrive sometime this month. I have been pondering all my cuts but had never considered testicles! I will have them packaged. Whether I can be brave enough to cook them....I'll let you know! Interesting, as always.

Tasty Trix said...

You are my hero. Taking the time to research and do this is so awesome. And the best fun to read, I have missed reading your posts, but I really have to do it only when I have time to savor them - your writing is far too interesting to skim. Bravo on holding out for those stones. And your plating with the little carved orange is magnificent. How interesting that he went his own way and went light on the seasonings. I only have one question: Why no cockscombs?? ; ) Lol.

Ana Powell said...

A very elegant dish.
I have never cooked wood pigeon but I have eaten it here
Outstanding photos ♥

Faith said...

What a great read this was! I'm glad you included the pictures of the old kitchens, it's really fascinating. Your fricase came out beautifully! I love your attention to detail, especially with the carved orange.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

You continue to push our culinary boundaries by reaching into the past! A beautiful and daring dish!

Acquired said...

Wow, what a lesson I've just had. Thanks for a great post again.

Lazaro Cooks said...

Far too many ignorant people dismiss pigeon. They only think of what they see in the city square and on roof-tops. Wood pigeon is one of the truest "free-range" birds you can eat. Spending their time in the woodlands eating a fabulous all natural diet. That you can truly appreciate in the final product.

5 Star Dish. Perfect execution and lovely presentation.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I love learning about these amazing chefs of times gone by Deana! You have a real way of taking us there with you! :D