Agincourt

With everyone blogging or tweeting today about the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to ‘revive’ my Henry V recipe.  The Battle of Agincourt is the dramatic high-point of Shakespeare’s history play, a battle in which, against all the odds, the vastly outnumbered English won a definitive victory against the French.

Like all Shakespeare plays, Henry V contains shifting moods and contrasting scenes.  In a play that celebrates an amazing military victory, there are unsurprisingly rousing and patriotic speeches, the best known of which is the “Crispin’s day” one delivered by Henry to motivate his dispirited troops immediately before the battle (Act IV, Scene 3).  But there are also moments of sorrow and difficult decisions: Henry has to abide by the rules of military engagement and order the execution of his former drinking companion, Bardolph, for “robbing a church”.  And, of course, there are moments of humour, which is where the food comes in.

For symbolic purposes, Henry’s winning army contains officers from all regions of the British Isles, including Fluellen from Wales.  Fluellen cannot cease boasting of his Welsh heritage, and of that of Henry himself, who was born in Monmouth in 1386.  When Henry admits his pride in being a Welshman and in wearing the leek, Fluellen expresses his delight in his Welsh accent:

All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you 
that: God pless it and preserve it, as long as it pleases his grace, and his majesty too.  
                                                                                                                             (Act IV, Scene 7)

For more on this – and the leek tart it inspired – read here

 

Fig and Walnut Tarte Tatin

GUARDSMAN: Here is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness’ presence.
He brings you figs. 
CLEOPATRA:        Let him come in. 
                              (William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra)

Usually the book comes first, and then the recipes – that was the founding idea behind this blog.  In my attempt to trace the way food has been written about in English literature over time, I have been picking up and rereading (or skimming through) key texts in a chronological order (more or less), finding interesting references to food and then devising recipes inspired by them.

But sometimes the food comes first, usually as a result of seasonal pressures.  When the trees in the garden are bowing down with quinces or damsons, then something needs to be done with them.  And if that means skipping around a bit in literature and losing my chronological path, so be it.


And so it was the other week when my organic delivery provided me with a box of fresh figs.  I’m ashamed to admit that I had never bought or cooked fresh figs before, but now there was no excuse.   And as I’ve just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra to my A Level students – where the poisonous asp that will deprive Cleopatra of her life is smuggled into her chambers concealed in a basket of figs – I knew that there was at least one literary reference I could investigate.

But with a short shelf-life, the recipe had to come first… and the literature will come later.
This recipe really showcases the figs, both aesthetically and in taste terms – cooked with honey, vanilla and lemon they become meltingly soft and deliciously sweet, and the walnuts add a variation in texture.

FIG AND WALNUT TARTE TATIN 

Ingredients (serves 4):
250g all-butter puff pastry
8-10 fresh figs, halved lengthways
75g unsalted butter
75g clear honey
juice of half a lemon
1 vanilla pod – or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
a handful of walnuts

Method: 
Preheat the oven to 200C / 190C fan / Gas mark 6.
Melt the butter and honey in a small (20cm) frying pan.  Add the seeds from the vanilla pod – or the vanilla bean paste – to the honey and butter mixture.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the mixture begins to caramelise.
Add the lemon juice, then place the halved figs in the pan carefully, cut side down.  Cook gently until they are just beginning to soften, then remove from the heat.
If your frying pan is ovenproof then you can continue using it; if, like mine, it isn’t, then you will need to carefully transfer the contents of the frying pan to a shallow ovenproof dish; make sure the figs remain cut side down.
Add the walnuts to the mixture in the pan, placing them wherever you have spaces between the figs.
Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly larger than the diameter of the frying pan or ovenproof dish.  Carefully slide the pastry circle over the fig mixture, tucking the edges down inside the pan or dish.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.  Allow to stand for 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate, fruit-side up.  Serve warm with creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.