Sunday, January 30, 2005

La Bonne Espouse - Good Wife Contest

The Chocolate Girl, Etienne Liotard, 1744-45

Plastered all over the walls of my house in the Fall of 2000 were pictures of the Chocolate Girl--a picture I had chosen to encourage me to think of ways I could acquire the accoutrements and knowledge necessary to win La Bonne Espouse contest at Ft. De Chartres' April Trade Faire.

Carol Wunderlich, the originator of the contest conceived to encourage female participation in reenacting, had posted a list of requirements on F&I Women for the contest.

Each participant had to have period correct equipment and be able to compete in three categories: making a beverage of either tea, coffee or chocolate; baking some type of bread; and sewing a small period garment. I was in heaven. That curious passenger pigeon, ebay_france, began to make deliveries to my house; a chocolatière, iron kettles, antique scissors. Another pigeon brought linen from Russia for chemises, bonnets, jupes (petticoats), corsets (jumps) and manteau-de-lit (a bedjacket). Each night after work I was sewing up a storm, gathering cooking equipment, and practicing cooking over a fire. I even managed to talk my husband into moving from Idaho to Illinois (that same passenger pigeon brought an invitation to teach English across the river in Kentucky). Imagine my dissapointment when I was the only woman willing to participate in the contest the next Spring 2001. Carol and I both talked up the contest; Carol even simplified the contest rules.

Then came Spring 2002. Five courageous ladies plopped themselves down on the steps of a ghosted building and were handed a threaded needle, one yard of cloth, a thimble and a pair of scissors. We had one hour to make a cap or bonnet (ladies in the 18th Century usually covered their hair for religious reasons). Each bonnet was given a number at the end of the contest and taken to the tavern to be judged after dinner by everyone at the encampment. My lappets cap won. And here is my prize, a lovely handmade basket by Linda Summerville, full of limes, lemons and a pineapple, the symbol of hospitality in 18thC America.

Learning to cook on an open fire or in a fireplace in a historic home is fun and easy with the proper tools, just as a modern kitchen and exquisite tools contribute to the success of cooking today--they both take practice and perseverance. Join me in reenacting and stretch yourself in learning a new way to provide delectable treats. Who knows--someday your lights may go out and that fireplace will be sitting there waiting to nourish you--give it a try!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Wine - for an 18thC Taste

Wine and other bottles from the Fortress Louisbourg archaeological digs on display in the museum

Recently, I asked Patrick Chazallet what might be wines, both white and red, that I could recommend to drink to approximate the taste of wines in the 18thC. He had an interesting reply:

"With the 18thC the wines were extracted very little (not much color, few tannins), because of the type of vine from which they were drawn. The wines were not very good either, the bottle was not generalized and they were often oxidized. To prevent being too bad, they were often aromatized with spices. It was the period when one gradually stopped using these spices, but they were still in use. Moreover more often one sweetened them.

They were always manufactured in the abbeys, except in Bordeaux where some English and Dutch bought properties.

Thus no current wine will resemble them. You can come close with:

« wines at base of the type of vine Pineau d' Aunis, and cabernet which one finds in names Coteaux of the Dormouse and Jasnières, close of the city of LeMans in Sarthe (north of the Loire Valley)

« wines at base of the type of vine Chinon and Bourgueil relatively light red wines made from the Cabernet Franc, 'Breton' (center of the Loire Valley)

« wines of the Beaujolais containing Gamay; a light dry red table wine made from the same grape used for French Beaujolais gamay rosé (south of Burgundy)."

So if I have a variety of gamay beaujolais, cabernet, and chenin blanc in my cave, I should be able to have a wine to go with most of my meals, although my cave is not as extensive as Voltaire's, who "ordered casks of wine, bottles by the thousand, corks as many as three thousand at a time. Beaujolais was his favorite wine; on one occasion he topped off the casks with Burgundy, which has not, I think, been done in recent years." Wheaton, p.216.

1983 Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. SAVORING THE PAST : The French Kitchen And Table from 1300 to 1789. Touchstone, New York, NY.

Coming soon . . . more on the history of wine in the 18thC and a separate posting on champaign.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Is My Blog Burning 11 - Beans

- French Baked Beans

Soak 1 kg white beans over night. In the morning, cook the beans with a bundle of parsley, 1 bay laurel leaf and a pinch of salt about two hours with a soft fire until tender; set aside.

Rub the inside of your casserole with garlic. Place a layer of beans, drained, pieces of confit of duck or goose, chunks of sausage, chunks of lamb and some confit fat. Sprinkle with a few slices of carrots (optional) and sliced onions and garlic. Cover with the rest of the beans. Pour the reserved bean liquid over all, cover and set into the oven with a slow fire (300ºF). Cook until the liquid is absorbed and a uniformly brown crust has formed. If the cassoulet becomes dry, add a little hot broth, but gently, so as not to disturb the crust. Serve from the earthen pot very hot with crusts of freshly baked bread.

Be sure and check out Derrick's and Tom's entries for cassoulet--they have all the modern explanations and steps deliniated--sadly, 18thC receipts were very sparsely detailed, as most everyone knew the steps to be taken. As a result, translating recipes from Old French can be frustrating.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


verjus from 18thC CuisineCondiments are sometimes the bases of sauces. Verjus (literally green juice) is one such condiment. Verjus was very popular in Medieval French cuisine, and is enjoying somewhat of a comeback today. However, from perusing the Internet (a passenger pigeon used to ask a question to which the answer appears out of nowhere), it would appear that the verjus available from vintners today is just a bottled grape juice, either white or red, with whole grapes sometimes included in the bottle.

Verjus in 18thCentury France/Canada may or may not have been fermented, but it was more than just green grape juice and a few grapes in a bottle. Frugal French housewives did not waste much. During the harvest, all grapes that were not ripe were set apart from the mature grapes ready for the wine vats. The nicest looking green grapes were then pricked with a fork and put into jars. The rest of the green grapes were pressed to extract the juice from the skins and seeds (today we use a Chinese hat and pestle). The juice is then added to the bottles of grapes and a little sugar and 90 proof alcohol (marc-distilled from the pressings after the wine is made [bouilleur du cru-itinerant distillers still can be seen in rural France-going from one small holding to another making marc]) and wine vinegar is added to the jars—where grapes were not available, crabapples, other fruits and even sorrel were used and are referenced. After two months or more, the verjus is ready. It adds intense flavor and sprightly sourness to sauces, but it does not clash with wine as vinegar does.

"'The basic distinction in modern French cooking between sweet and salt was not routinely made. Vinegar was much used, both in the cooking of meats, where the acid would break down tough muscle fibers, and as one of the principal liquids in sauces. Verjus, a pungent acid liquid-actually a strong vinegar, was extensively used. Sorrel purée was sometimes added for color and flavor (Wheaton:14)." Toussaint-Samat mentions that "verjus was first made of the acid juices of sorrel, then unripe plums. In the 16thC, grapes, as well as oranges and lemons were rare, and verjus used the wasted grapes. Outside the grape areas, crabs and unripe apples were used." In Canada: Saragard talks about really good grapes that could be made into wine in the Huron country, early 17thC. Champlain makes many references to grapes. Kalm in speaking about Montreal "Several people here in town have gotten the French grapevines and planted them in their gardens. They have two kinds of grapes, one is pale green, or almost white; the other, of a reddish brown. From the white ones they say a white wine is made, and from the red ones, red wine (1749). Patricia Mitchell mentions "capons in unfermented wine" was popular. So it would be appropriate to use grape verjus in Canada; however, it would probably be more authentic to use crabapple or other early-drop apples. It is possible that they would have returned to the earlier practice of using plums.

Use verjus to deglaze the pan with chicken or fish. Reduce a bit of it down and add it to game sauces for that indefinable something extra. In recipes where the phrase unfermented wine appears, what is probably being referenced or remembered is verjus. This taste spans time all the way to present French cuisine and bistro fare. Verjus can also be used in water with a bit of sugar to make a refreshing summer drink. Try it added to other fruit juices or beer for that extra bitter edge to excite the appetite, creating your own apéritif.

Here is Madeleine Kamman's recipe for verjus: "2 pounds green grapes (berries only), as green and sour as possible but already juicy (1 kg.), sugar, 90 proof alcohol or Armagnac, wine vinegar. Select about 30 very large berries and prick them with a fork in 4 different places. Put the berries in a half-gallon jar. Crush the remainder of the grapes. Rinse and squeeze dry a large piece of cheesecloth. Line a strainer with the cheesecloth and strain the grape juice, squeezing well to extract all the juice. Measure it accurately. For each cup (1/4 liter) of grape juice obtained, measure 1/4 cup (75 g) of sugar, 2 cups (1/2 liter) of alcohol and 1/2 cup wine vinegar (1 generous dl). Dissolve the sugar in the grape juice. Add the alcohol and vinegar; pour over the berries in the half-gallon container. Store in a cool place (60-65(F) for at least 2 months before using. It keeps forever, and is good in all chicken dishes, with ham, ducks and so forth. A supply made with 1 quart of grape juice, 2 quarts of alcohol and 2 cups of vinegar lasts one year." (Try this with apples off that flowering crab in your front yard; the taste should be very close to true Canadien.) __________________________________

Boire et manger, quelle Histoire! discusses the history of verjus in France and Obsession with Food makes a verjus curd.

1976 Kamman, Madeleine. When French Women Cook. Atheneum, New York, Pp. 70-71.
1991 Mitchell, Patricia B. French Cooking in Early America. Sims-Mitchell House Bed & Breakfast, Chatham, VA, p.3.
1994 Toussaint Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Blackwell Publishers, p. 528.
1983 Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. SAVORING THE PAST : The French Kitchen And Table from 1300 to 1789. Touchstone, New York, NY.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Cooking or McCooking?

click photo to enlarge
DH with one too large to fit in the frying pan whole.

When I remarried, now ten years ago (a mid-life commitment to optimism), I asked my husband (DH) to build a wood box to hide the cooler in which I intended to take period-appropriate dishes to events, each dish lovingly prepared on my gas range at home, each dish needing only to be reheated over my camp cooking fire, each dish intended to wow everyone who sampled my preparations. He agreed to build me the box--I am still waiting for it--but he chided me for my "McCooking" intentions; said I was entirely missing the purpose of reenacting.

My husband began shooting muzzleloading firearms in the 1960s. Blue jeans and suede fringe were still seen at rendezvous. Authenticity was fine as long as it didn't get in the way of having a good time. But what he and his friends did was to camp in the manner that Carson or Bridger or an unnamed mountain man might have. They went into the mountains of Oregon and Alaska with their rifles, frying pans and axes. Little else. Once when asked why he took along his ax, he said, "Some of what I shoot won't fit into the frying pan whole." That was true, but not the truth. He and his friends were camping minimalists. In their blue jeans, they were living for a weekend, or a week, or in a few cases, several weeks as mountain men. Costume was less important than experience. They transcended the trappings of their mountain man time period, and they lived day by day off what they killed. No game, no dinner. They took along no coolers concealed in wood boxes, no corn chowder needing only to be reheated, no 20th or now 21st Century MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. Their seasonings were limited to salt from a horn, and campfire char. And they brought home enough meat to fill winter freezers year after year.

When we married, I informed my husband that I had no intentions of reenacting as a Native American woman, stretching and chewing hides for him. My interests were in how the "civilized" world lived. I had no interest in spending a night burrowed in a mound of spruce branches stripped from nearby trees, then gnawing on a strip of charred meat for breakfast, which he has done while moose hunting in Alaska. And he has humored me by relocating farther east than he ever had any intention of living. But his point about McCooking is valid: are we really reenacting a "civilized" time period when our campfire cooking is limited to a camp stew, charring a few steaks, and reheating dishes prepared at home? Can we prepare the type of dishes that would have come from a habitante's 18th-Century hearth kitchen over an open fire, without first doing all or most of the cooking at home? Of course we can. Of course I can--that's what I told my husband. "Then why," he asked, "do you need the cooler?" "To protect the eggs," I quickly answered. As I mentioned earlier, I'm still waiting for my wood box so apparently my answer wasn't reason enough to motivate my husband. We can do more than reheat period-appropriate dishes, make stew, or grill steaks.

Many if not most of the techniques associated with modern French cuisine were known in the 18th-Century. These techniques were practiced by frugal housewives who had more to work with than a frying pan, an ax, and a dead animal. Habitants didn't practice "cuisine minimalism." At least as early as in the writings of Chaucer [c.1380], French chefs were recognized for their preparation of savory sauces. A frugal habitant's wife would have thickened the drippings from a roasted chicken with an egg yolk and a little cream, beaten together in a separate bowl. She would, then, have poured this enriched sauce over the hot meat to dress up an otherwise plain dish. The use of brandy or wine (or even water) to deglaze a skillet will produce an almost instant sauce that can add superb flavor to camp cooking. Other possibilities, especially for wild game, are fruit juices, preserves, honey and vinegars. French sauce techniques are not difficult to master--consider giving them a try--and bon appétit!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

18thC Cuisine in the news...

A friend drew my attention to the fact that 18thC Cuisine was mentioned in an article in the Boston Globe today, "Food Bloggers Chronicle Their Delicious Obsessions". I blush to be mentioned along with stars like Clothilde and Pim and Pascale, among many others. Thank you, friends and fellow bloggers for such an honor.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Potato Galette

click photo to enlarge
Oak Platter - Old Bedford Mercers

Paper Chef #2 Competition

Although the French did not eat potatoes until late in the 18th Century, once they were introduced by Parmentier they became a staple food in many countries. Frugal housewives have always sought ways to use leftovers and boiled, mashed potatoes make a great crust to enclose other small bits of food.

Rub the inside of a baking dish with butter and shake bread crumbs all over--this helps to make the galette easy to remove from the pan and yields a nice golden crust to the galette. Save some bread crumbs to sprinkle on the top to add color, as well. Pat mashed potatoes that have shredded cabbage and crumbled bits of bacon or ham stirred in all over the bottom and sides of the buttered and crumbed dish.

Make a filling by cubing leftover roast chicken and some bits of gruyere cheese, to which you add lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Once the filling has absorbed the oil and lemon juice, spoon it into the prepared potato crust. Smooth the rest of the mashed potatoes and shredded cabbage over the meat and cheese and sprinkle on the reserved bread crumbs. Lower into your dutch oven and bake in the coals until the top of the galette is golden. Remove the kettle from the fire and carefully take the galette out. Let the galette cool until the potato crust subsides a little to set it. Slice and serve warm. Also good cold.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Epiphany--12th Night

Here in Novelle France, the winter holidays are almost over. Tomorrow, January 6th, is L'Épiphanie--12th Night.

In the northeast on the frozen shores of Lake Ontario, Old Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY, this Saturday, January 8th, hosts an "Officers Ball" which encompass's 12th night with the traditional King/Queen Cake and dancing with the "great" Jerry Brubaker as Dance Master. There also is a light evening "re-past" provided with many treats & drink! 11:00pm will have the finest 18th Century Pyro-Technics also! You can contact the Fort at 716-745-7611 for last minute tickets.

Farther inland along the Mississippi in the Pays Illinois, January 8th, the 12th Night Colonial Ball (French Colonial costume not required but encouraged) will open the pre-Lent Mardi Gras season. Music for dancing by Cousin Curtis & the Cash Rebates with some dances called. Located at the American Legion Hall in Prairie du Rocher, IL at 8:00pm, just off Illinois Hwy 3 approx 1.5 hrs south of St. Louis. Doors open at 6:00pm, music at 8:00pm. Cover is $10. Contact Jerry Franklin 618 284-7300.

Two French bloggers have posted recipes and photos of the traditional French 12th Night or Epiphany cake, also known as King/Queen Cake. Pascale, at C'est moi qui la fait!, and Benoit, at de gourmandises, have both made the traditional almond-frangipane and puff pastry la galette des rois, inside of which is a bean for the king or queen of the night. Enjoy the recipes and pictures, both of which are very well done.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Calissons - part of treize (13) desserts

Calissons, a very old sweet, is usually only seen as a professionally manufactured candy, not a homemade treat and is a regular part of holidays and fêtes, especially le gros souper followed by treize (13) desserts. A mixture of 40% almonds and 60% fruit and syrup is sandwiched between a layer of wafer/host and a topping of royal icing and is then cut into an almond shape. The history of calissons began in1474 at the time of the marriage banquet of King Rene with Jeanne of Laval. A cook, secretly enamoured of the Queen, created calissons for her in Aix-en-Provence from crystallized almonds, melons, sugar, syrup and unleavened bread or host.
Since the latest supplies from France did not include my order of wafer/host, I had to devise some sort of crust to replace it. I used a mixture of 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, some grated lemon rind, 1 egg yolk (keep the white for the royal icing), 1/4 cup butter, and a drop of rum. I chilled the resulting dough and then patted it very thinly onto the bottom of a sheet pan and baked it in a hot oven (425ºF) for about 8 minutes, watching very carefully that it only set, but didn't brown.

As the crust was cooling, I finely chopped and then pounded in a mortar 6 ounces of blanched almonds and 2 ounces of sugar until I had a fine powder, but not a nut paste. I then added in 8 ounces of finely chopped crystallized melon and continued to pound to mix. Previously I had drained some orange marmelade to obtain 2 ounces of syrup, which I also pounded into the mix to help bind it. The marmelade syrup was important to add a certain bitterness because I did not have any bitter almonds. Soon, I had a finely mixed paste which I then put into a poêle over a slow fire and stirred constantly until it had "drawn" as much as possible (this means I watched until no moisture vapor rose from the gently cooking mass). Next I patted the paste over the crust with wet fingers, leveling it up as much as possible.

Royal icing came next by whipping the remaining egg white with 1 cup of finely powdered sugar, which was spread over the paste. It flowed into all of the cracks and made a smooth surface. Then I took two round cutters and cut circles out with the small one; then used the larger one to intersect the midpoint of the smaller circle, thereby cutting the small circle into two almond shaped pieces. I had two tasty little bits left over from each small circle, which disappeared quickly into the greedy mouths hanging around the kitchen. Then the calissons were placed onto a clean baking sheet and put into a slow oven (300ºF) to "draw" [dry out] the paste and to set the icing. And there you have it--calissons. But be sure and order your wafer paper early, in hopes that the last boat from France for the year will have a ready supply.

Errata: You can see in the picture that my royal icing has cracked and is no longer smooth. Alas, while cutting out the almond shapes, I could not help but disturb the appearance of my icing. I hoped that it would smooth out in the oven, but it did not. Next time, I will cut the shapes first and then pipe or drizzle the icing over the little individual shapes to maintain the desired smooth appearance.
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