This is a guest contribution to Illuminations for The Great Rare Books Bake Off by Matt Hunter, Digital Scholarship Librarian at FSU Libraries.
Outside of my day-job I study food in medieval England, so I was *very* interested in this challenge to see whether or not I had any skills to recreate some of the foods I study. Though the ingredients and techniques may often seem strange to modern kitchens, there’s much more that seems familiar once a bit of creative interpretation and translation is applied. Although I wasn’t aware of any medieval recipe-books in FSU’s Special Collections, I figured the mid-seventeenth century was a pretty good place to start!
For my recipe, I tried to find something from the 1658 edition of The Compleat Cook: Expertly Prescribing the most ready wayes, whether Italian, Spanish, or French, for dressing of Flesh, and Fish, Ordering of Sauces, or making of Pastry. There’s tons of fun stuff in there for those ready to experiment with historical food, but as someone who is dreadfully inept at baking and also a vegetarian, there weren’t that many recipes I could bring myself to commit to. But just as portobello steaks and burgers have come to serve as a stand-in for beef in many modern American sports bars, I figured the recipe “To ſtew Muſhromes” (pp. 97-98) would be right up my alley with a strategic substitution or two. I love mushrooms, and the mix of savory and citrus elements sounded incredibly interesting. The general modern* availability of the ingredients didn’t hurt either – though “mutton gravy” was a bit out of my grasp (it’s also the only thing I needed to swap out for a vegetarian option anyhow). All-in-all this was a pretty easy recipe and it turned out surprisingly good. There were some parts that I think I would change for future iterations, but I’ll get to those at the end.
* (Historical availability is a different matter altogether, which is discussed below!)
Here’s the recipe as transcribed from pages 97 and 98 of The Compleat Cook, long-s (ſ) retained:
To ſtew Muſhromes Take them freſh gathered and cut off the hard end of the ſtalk,& as you pill them throw them into a Diſh of White-wine, after they have lain half an houre or there-upon, draine them from the Wine, and put them between two ſilver Diſhes, then ſet them on a ſoft fire without any liquor, and when they have ſtewed a while, poure away the liquor that comes from them which will be very black, then put your Muſhromes into another cleane Diſhe with a ſprig or two of Tyme, an Onyon whole, foure or five Cournes of whole Pepper, two or three Cloves, a bit of an Orange, a little Salt, a bit of ſweet butter and ſome pure Gravie of Mutton, cover them, and ſet them on a gentle fire, ſo let them ſtew ſoftly till they be enough, and very tender, when you diſh them blow off all the fat from them, and take out the Tyme, Spice and Orange, then wring in the juyce of Lemon, and grate a little Nutmeg among the Muſhromes, toſſe them two or three times, put them in a cleane Diſhe, and ſerve them hot to the Table.
My version: Stewed Mushrooms, adapted for vegetarians
- 16oz Baby Bella mushrooms, peeled, stems trimmed - ~2-2.5 cups white wine (or enough to cover mushrooms) - 1/2 small yellow onion - 1/4 medium orange - 1/8 lemon - 2-3 sprigs thyme - 3-4 black peppercorns - 2 whole cloves - 1 tsp sea salt - 2 tbsp salted sweet-cream butter - 1/4 cup mushroom gravy - Rinse the mushrooms. Peel the skins and trim the stems - Put the peeled mushrooms in a small baking dish and cover with white wine (a zip-top bag would work as well). Marinate for 30 minutes. [I would suggest a very cheap wine since this is eventually discarded] - Drain the wine from the mushrooms and transfer to a 10-inch high-sided skillet. Cook on medium heat until the mushrooms dry and start to brown (8- 12 minutes), flipping frequently. - Transfer the mushrooms into an 8-inch saucepan and add butter, onion, thyme, spices, orange, and gravy. Simmer on low for 5-10 minutes (until mushrooms are soft), stirring frequently and muddle oranges while stirring. - Transfer to serving dish. Squeeze lemon and grate fresh nutmeg directly onto mushrooms. Serve hot and enjoy!
Based on some preliminary research, I found that the original publication of The Compleat Cook was intended to be a sort of exposé of the domestic life of Queen Mary of England, (neé Henrietta Maria, princess of France, of the house of Bourbon), wife of King Charles I of England (r. 1625-1649). The Compleat Cook was produced as a separate volume of culinary recipes alongside a larger collection of medicinal and confectionary recipes in 1655 entitled The Queens Closet Opened: Incomparable Secrets in Physic, Chirurgery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery. (The volume of Compleat Cook we have in Special Collections is a 1658 reprinting.) Scholars have previously interpreted this collection of recipes as a bit of royalist propaganda to rehabilitate Henrietta Maria’s public image in England after the First English Civil War, which saw Henrietta Maria exiled to her home country of France in 1644, and the execution of Charles I in 1649. Whether or not rehabilitation through the publication of these recipes was successful is up for debate, but Henrietta Maria’s son Charles II did eventually reclaim the throne from the republican, English Commonwealth in 1660, at which point Henrietta Maria returned to England. This collection of recipes, then, served as a sort of tableau of the intimate domestic composure of the monarchy’s innermost lives, exposed for the English public, that included comforting English recipes intended to show off Henrietta Maria’s proper Englishness. ¹
So what does all this mean for the recipe? Primarily, it was to understand the historical context of some of the ingredients and figure out some of the un-accounted amounts. In particular, I wanted to make sure my amounts for the spices and citruses were feasible in early-modern England. The fact that the clove, nutmeg, and black peppercorn would all have been imported in the spice trade from the East Indies or Caribbean (clove and nutmeg from the Spice Islands of Indonesia or the West Indies, black pepper from India or the Middle East), and that citrus—especially the orange—had to be imported from warmer climates meant that the inclusion of these ingredients may have very well been a show of status just as much as a culinary choice. I also wanted to try to get a decently-accurate sense of what mushrooms and wines would have been included.
In the end, this historical research was more of a “good to know” thing rather than instructive in how I approached the recipe – there are too many considerations in the modern grocery environment to effectively match a historic ingredient list without some serious legwork. But thinking about the English wine landscape of the seventeenth century, and thinking about the availability of citrus and spices to the wider English public helped determine what varietal and how sparing I was in my ingredients. For things like thyme, I felt as though I could be generous, while the historically more precious spices and citrus I tried to be hold back.
My Attempt at ſtewing Muſhromes:
Based on my limited understanding of the Floridian mycologic landscape, I was not comfortable going on a wild mushroom hunt for this recipe. Instead I stuck to the safe and grocery-store available (if somewhat boring) Baby Bella mushrooms. After trimming the stems and peeling the skins, I threw them into a small glass baking dish to let them soak in the white wine, as called for.
Given that Henrietta Maria was a French queen of England, I figured the best choice for the unspecified “White-wine” would be a mildly-flavored French varietal to compliment some of the citrus flavors of the orange and lemon. But since covering the trimmed mushrooms to soak ended up requiring almost 2 ½ cups, and (especially) since this is discarded immediately after a brief 30-minute soak, I opted for some cheap (read: boxed) Sauvignon Blanc I had in the fridge. Once the ‘rooms soaked their allotted 30 minutes and were drained, it was time for their first stewing—this time in a large high-sided skillet (my interpretation of stewing between “two silver dishes”) over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. If this were a traditional meat-based stew, this step would brown the meat Rather than having to drain the resulting liquid, I noticed that it was boiling off rather quickly once expressed from the mushrooms, and gave a nice Maillard effect brown on the caps and stems.
Once most of the liquid had boiled off but before the mushrooms got tough, I transferred them into a high-sided saucepan with the rest of the ingredients. Since the original quantity of mushrooms was never specified, I was guessing a bit on the appropriate quantities of butter, orange, onion, and gravy so as to not overpower anything. Keeping in mind that I wanted to highlight the taste of the mushrooms and the relatively high-status of the citrus and spices in the period, I decided to err on the lower side. I settled on 4 black peppercorns and 2 cloves as a compromise, and threw it all together to simmer as if on “a gentle fire” for about 7 minutes. That gave enough time for the butter to melt, the onion to sweat out some flavor, and everything to be incorporated into the gravy. I crushed the oranges a bit as they warmed to get more of the juice out, which I think helped a lot, though thinking back I think even a quarter orange may have been generous in historical context (the flavor was great, though, so it’s pretty good luck for us Floridians!).
After things had combined well, I pulled the orange rinds, thyme sprigs and onion out of the pot and transferred the mushrooms to a serving dish, topping off with a small squeeze of lemon and some freshly grated nutmeg.
The end result? Surprisingly complex! The earthiness of the mushrooms and thyme served as a great compliment to the brightness of the citrus and clove, all layered over the rich foundation of the butter and gravy. Unsurprisingly, the timidity of the Sauvignon Blanc was lost completely once it was expressed from the mushrooms, and since there were no other real flavors included in the ‘marinade’ that whole process seemed like a waste of both time and wine; I have the feeling that a stronger white like a buttery Chardonnay might stand up a little better, and that’s what I’d use on a second attempt. On the other hand, since the point of a marinade is to use an acid as a vehicle to pump flavor into the cell fibers of the marinant, without any other spices during the 30 minute soak, even a full-bodied white may not do much (I’d really prefer to marinate with all the spices together). Otherwise, I think the more modern, readily-available status of some of these spices would lend a helping hand – the flavor of just the four black peppercorns I used was completely lost, so I would definitely bump that up to a liberal dusting of the ground stuff during the second round of stewing. I also do want to note that the store-bought jar of mushroom gravy I used in lieu of the mutton gravy was extremely salty and rich in its own right, probably imparting a lot of flavor that would not have been present in an original version with its home-made mutton gravy. But I’ll leave that experiment to someone else to try.
With a few modifications, this is definitely something I’d include into a rotation of family-gathering or holiday side dishes. The prep time for peeling the mushrooms (probably another unnecessary step with something as commercially-grown as white button or Baby Bella mushrooms) made it a little too involved for a more-common dish, though.
¹ For a deep investigation of the larger historical context of The Compleat Cook, see Laura Lunger Knoppers, “Opening the Queen’s Closet: Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth Cromwell, and the Politics of Cookery,” Renaissance Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2007): 464–99.