The Sweeter Side of Life

Most food that is referred to in medieval literature is savoury, hence the focus on fish, meat and pies in my previous posts.  However, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when Gawain is introduced to the ladies at Sir Bertilak’s court, they take him to sit by the fire in their chamber where they call for wine and “Spyce3” (l. 979, defined in the Middle English Dictionary as spices, sugar, spiced cake or sweetmeat).  With no indication of what exactly Sir Gawain is being fed by the courtly ladies, I turned to the medieval cookery book The Forme of Cury – referred to here – which contains a number of recipes for sweet dishes, including “Crispels” (fried pastry rounds basted in honey), “Rysshews of fruit” (fried fruit rissoles) and “Daryols” (custard tart flavoured with saffron).  Honey is, not surprisingly a key sweetener in many of these recipes, but in some cases reference is also made to sugar.  

A Medieval French market, with a merchant selling sugar on the right.

Sugar is known to have been used in Polynesia more than 5000 years ago; however, it arrived far more recently in England.  Crusaders returning home from their travels to the Middle East in the late 11th century referred to sugar, and it is documented that the household of Henry III was using sugar in 1264.

But it was probably not more widely known in England until the 14th century and, even then, since it cost the equivalent of £50 per pound in today’s currency, sugar was very much a luxury item that could only be bought by the most affluent households.  In 1448 Margaret Paston wrote to her husband John asking him to buy her “1lb of almonds and 1lb of sugar”.

The Pastons were a Norfolk family and letters they wrote, spanning three generations and covering the period of the Wars of the Roses, have survived to the present and offer a fascinating insight into the family members’ lives, and into the political and social changes of the time.

The family are an example of social mobility, rising swiftly from the peasantry to the gentry as a result of education, and becoming wealthy in the process.  John Paston, like his father, was a lawyer who worked predominantly in London, whilst his wife, Margaret, remained in Norfolk.  Her request for sugar and almonds indicates both the family’s wealth and the more ready availability of desirable foodstuffs in London compared to the countryside.

 We have no idea what Margaret Paston was planning to cook with her almonds and sugar.  Almonds were a widely-used ingredient in medieval cookery, and almond milk, made by steeping almonds in water, was commonly used as an alternative to cows’ milk, both because it did not go off as quickly and also because it could be consumed during dairy-free periods, such as Lent.  Looking through The Forme of Cury– available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8102– I found the following recipe which contains both sugar and almonds, so could be what Mrs Paston had in mind, and which would, I think, make a suitably accompaniment to a glass of wine for a member of King Arthur’s court.
The medieval recipe is as follows:
FRYTOUR BLAUNCHED
Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile (a thin sheet of dough or pastry). close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith.
My 21st century version uses an almond cream – made with ground almonds, butter, eggs, sugar and flour – rather than just the ground almonds of the medieval version.  I have eaten them with coffee but also as a post-dinner light-dessert, a la Gawain. 
MEDIEVAL ALMOND PASTRIES:
Ingredients (makes 24):
For the pastry:
200g plain flour
50g butter & 50g Trex or other vegetable shortening (alternatively you could use 100g butter) – diced
Pinch salt & cold water to bind
For the almond cream filling:
55g soft butter
55g caster sugar
55g ground almonds
15g plain flour
1 egg
¼ teaspoon almond essence
Warmed honey to glaze. 
Sieved icing sugar.
Method:
Make the shortcrust pastry by rubbing the fat into the flour using your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Stir in the pinch of salt and then add cold water gradually until the mixture starts to come together.  Bring the dough into a ball, wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to rest for between 30 minutes and an hour. 
Make the almond cream filling by creaming together the sugar and butter until soft and fluffy.  Then mix in the beaten egg.  Add the ground almonds, flour and almond essence and mix until combined.
When the pastry has rested, remove from the fridge.  Preheat the oven to 200C /180C fan / Gas mark 6.  Allow the pastry to return to room temperature and then roll out on a floured surface to a thickness of about a one pound coin.  Cut out rounds using a 7.5cm cutter.  Put one teaspoon of the almond cream filling on one half of the pastry circle, brush the outside rim with water (using a pastry brush), then fold over the pastry and seal – so you are making little almond parcels (they look like mini Cornish pasties).
Place the pastry parcels on a floured baking sheet and brush each one with warmed honey (just put a couple of tablespoonfuls of clear honey in a small saucepan and heat gently until it becomes very runny and starts to bubble around the edges).
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden-brown. When cool, sprinkle with icing sugar.

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