September begins the farmer’s year. The harvests are largely in, and the bills paid, so the provident farmer can look to the future of his farm. Thomas Tusser, with an eye to good eating as well as good tillage, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” bids “Wife, into thy garden, and set me a plot, with strawberry rootes, of the best to be got: Such growing abroade, among thornes in the wood, wel chosen and picked proove excellent good.” Tusser’s housewife cannot order strawberry plants from the nursery as we can, but must find a woodland patch to thin, and bring plants home to her garden plot. The disadvantage is the walking and the work; the advantage is that they will be the tiny, sweet, intensely flavored “fraises de bois”, or woodland strawberries, which are often considered to the pinnacle of fresh fruits. So, while we are pricking out a bed for next spring, let us anticipate the bounty to come.
Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of yere in gode red wyne; than strayne thorwe a clothe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun other with the flowre of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do ther-in Roysonys of courance, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale; poynte it with Vynegre, & a lytil whyte grece put ther-to; coloure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with the graynys of Pome-garned, & than serue it forth.
TRANSLATION: Take strawberries, & wash them in [the] time of year [when they are ripe] in good red wine; then strain through a cloth, and put them in a pot with good almond milk, thicken it with amydoun [see glossary] or with the flour of rice, & make it stiff, and let it boil, and add therein raisins of Corinth [see glossary] , saffron, pepper, [of] sugar [a] great plenty, powdered ginger, cinnamon, galingale; point it with vinegar, and a little white grease (butter or lard) thereto; color it with alkanet [see glossary], and drop it about, sprinkle it with the seeds of pomegranates, and than serve it forth.
REALIZATION: This recipe can be made as a pudding, a sauce, or a summer soup. The serving size will vary, of course, depending on the use to which the recipe is put.
For a pudding, start with about two pints of strawberries. I will reverse the recipe’s order somewhat, and recommend that you crush the strawberries and bring then to a short boil before straining them through a jelly-bag or towel. Unlike straining for modern jelly, you are not particularly interested in crystal clear juice here, so squeeze the pulp as hard as you like to extract every last drop of juice. (editorial comment: “Waste makes want.”) You should have between one and one and one-half cups of juice. Add sufficient almond milk to make two cups. In a saucepan, melt about 4 T. of butter or lard, and stir in 4 T. of all purpose wheat flour, or an equal amount of rice flour, if you can find it. Stir until smooth and cook about one minute over medium heat. During this one minute you may also stir in all the spices except the sugar. I recommend beginning with 1/8 tsp. each of white pepper (really!), cinnamon, ginger, and powdered galingale. Add two or three threads of saffron, if you like. Stir in the strawberry juice with a whisk, as though making white sauce. Add ½ cup of sugar and a bout 1 T of currants, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened. This will be just a little thinner than medium white sauce. Remove from heat, stir in 1T white vinegar, and pour into small dishes (makes four for a dessert serving). It may be garnished with pomegranate seeds when a bit cooler.
If you make this as a sauce, make less and thicken a bit more. Sweet sauces like this are delightful when served on salty meats like ham. Or, you can double the quantity of all ingredients EXCEPT flour and fat, and chill it to serve as a summer soup.
Pepper is really a tasty addition here. You will find almost any fresh or cooked fruit dish improved by adding just a short dash of finely-ground pepper. You can use white pepper, if the fruit is light enough in color that “black specks” are an issue. The vinegar is also a surprising assist, by modern tastes. The medieval cooks used it, as they said, to “point up” flavors. Try this as a test: taste a dish, then stir in about ½ to 1 T. of vinegar. Taste the dish again. You should not be able to taste the vinegar as “vinegar” in the dish, but all of the other flavors should seem “sharper.”
Finally, lard has an unjustified bad reputation. In this recipe, it adds less taste than butter would, but adds a full, smooth “mouth-feel” to a dish that few things can match. Very satisfying!
Amydoun: Washed and ground wheat starch. Wheat was soaked, pounded, hulls floated off, soaked and washed some more, then strained and dried thoroughly and finally ground into flour. It was as close to bran-less flour as the medievals could get. Substitute modern white all-purpose or pastry flour.
To “point up”: to sharpen flavors by adding a very small quantity of vinegar or verjuice. If you can taste the vinegar as an identifiable ingredient in a dish you have “pointed up”, you added too much.
Alkanet: a herb used for coloring foods. Also called “dyer’s bugloss”, and provides a bright carmine dye.