Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Salon Guest: Cooking for a Prince

Today it's a pleasure to welcome Christina Alexandra to the salon and she brings with her a very tasty example of historical cookery. Christina's website can be visted at http://www.christinaalexandra.net/ and I really do encourage you to gad over there!

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Prince Regent’s Fête of 1811

As a writer of historical romance, the time period often becomes a character in itself. The language, the dress, the society with its mores and strictures, the lack of what we think of as can’t-do-withouts (indoor plumbing, anybody?). It all plays a roll in making the story believable, even if it is fictional.  So much of what makes us glad we live in a modern world also makes the Georgian and Regency time periods a fun place to “visit” and write about.
One of the most fun parts of writing historical fiction is the research.  There was so much advancement in science, technology, medicine, law and social reform during that time, you can truly pick any current topic in the news today and find a way it was relevant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

If there are three things I truly enjoy in the world, they are food, history and writing.  When – in my ongoing procrastination quest for research – I happened to stumble onto Historical Food Fortnightly, I immediately became intrigued.
The rules are simple:
  1. Pick a challenge to accept.
  2. Research it to find a historic recipe that fits the challenge, including providing sources when available.
  3. Recreate it as close as possible using modern equipment, documenting it as you go along.
All of history is fair game, provided it is prior to 1960 and no recipe is off limits.  As a writer of Regency Romance, I tend to keep my recipes in the late Georgian and Regency periods.  After all, what better way to learn about history than to eat it?
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The Challenge: Foods served at notable events in history
"The Prince of Wales Gothic Conservatory at Carlton House" via www.GeorgianIndex.net
“The Prince of Wales Gothic Conservatory at Carlton House” via www.GeorgianIndex.net
For this challenge, I chose the Prince Regent’s Fête of 1811.  By late 1810, it was appeared King George III was suffering from madness and would not recover.  Parliament determined he could no longer sanely serve as monarch and enacted the Regency Act of 1811. This gave George Augustus Frederick the title of Prince Regent. Prinny, as he was referred to, was an extravagant man, prone to large spending and rich, lavish meals. On June 19, 1811 he held a fête at his London residence, Carlton House. While advertised it as a celebration of King George III’s birthday, this affair was really a way for the Prince to celebrate his ascendancy to power as Regent. It is reported that no fewer than four-hundred guests attended dinner alone and a specially constructed dinner table was needed to seat every single one.
The table itself was a sight to see, two-hundred feet in length, it was situated in the conservatory attached to the back of Carlton House. It boasted a channel running down the center in which live fish swam from one end to the other. It is rumored that it held more than thirty-six dinner courses.

The Recipe:
While I could not find a menu for that particular event, I was able to find one for another lavish party the Prince Regent held at Brighton in 1817. That menu listed four courses of fish including La matelote au vin de Bordeaux. According to Google translator, this is stew with Bordeaux wine. That is a nice, vague dish! Lucky for me, the Jane Austen Cookbook has a recipe for Sole with Wine and Mushrooms.

The Date/Year and Region:  
London, England  June 19, 1811

How Did You Make It:
Everything called for and ready to go.
Everything called for and ready to go.
The recipe is really quite simple.  While the ingredient list looks quite extensive, the first two-thirds are required only to make the broth. While the broth is cooking, there is ample time to prep the other ingredients. The mushrooms available to me locally were fairly large, about two inches in diameter, and needed to be cut into smaller pieces. I also had time to create the beurre manié. This is a mixture of equal parts flour and softened butter, similar to a roux, but does not require the either ingredient to be cooked. Once all ingredients are prepared and the broth is finished, this recipe takes mere minutes to complete. Everything gets added to a large skillet or pan – I used a 12-inch enamelled cast iron skillet – in order to build the sauce. Once the sauce is made and begins to thicken, add the fish and simmer until cooked. The sole filets were no more than a half-inch thick and took no more than two minutes per side. Once done, the fish was carefully lifted out of the pan – it is very delicate and had a tendency to break apart if handled too roughly – and plated. I served my fish with broiled asparagus, a vegetable that was popular during that time.

Time to Complete: 
From the time I accepted the challenge to the evening it was made and served, a total of about two weeks went by. I spent days agonising over which event I would choose. When I finally settled on the Regent’s Fête, it was another day or so to find the menu and a corresponding recipe. Actual hands-on time from the date I purchased my ingredients to the time the meal was cooked was only two days.
Total active cooking time was about twenty minutes (not counting the broth).

Total Cost:
About $45 for the entire meal.
Fresh sole filet: $25
White Bordeaux: $11
Fresh asparagus $3
Fish base: $6
The fish was the most expensive part of the meal. The recipe called for two pounds of sole filets. I could have purchased them at the local grocery store, but opted to get them at a local(ish) fish market where the quality was outstanding. I mean, if I’m going to go through the trouble of recreating a meal and serving it to guests, I want to use the best quality ingredients I can. Lucky for me, the fish was on weekly special and had an additional percentage off on Wednesdays.  :)

How Successful Was It?
Oh how I wish you could have been in the house to smell this dish!  It turned out amazing. Simple, tasty, and much easier than I originally thought after I studied the recipe. The recipe states it serves 4-6 people and that was very accurate. There were five adults for dinner that night and judging by the fact there wasn’t a scrap of fish left and all the sauce had been scraped from the bottom of the skillet, I’ll count it a success!

How Accurate Is It?
I used the Jane Austen cookbook for my recipe. It has a varied assortment of recipes for different occasions. What I like about this book is that it shows the original recipes and the modern version of the same recipe. The original recipes are very…interesting…to say the least. There are no measurements or cooking temperatures. Modern chefs took the recipes and recreated them with modern techniques and equipment, actual measurements and cooking temperatures.
The Jane Austen Cookbook
The Jane Austen Cookbook
Modern cooking methods aside, and not counting for the modern interpretation of a 200 year old recipe, I think I did okay with sticking to the historical accuracy of the recipe. Though, I must confess, I didn’t actually make the fish stock.
Unless you purchase an entire fish and clean, descale and debone it yourself, it is hard to find the required parts to make the fish stock. Required parts being bones and head. Sole is a large flat fish and the only way to purchase it is already cut into filets. This works for me since, as much as I love fish and meat, I don’t like handling it raw (long story, ask me sometime…). So I opted to use packaged fish stock. Or I tried to, at least. The problem is that there is no such thing as packaged fish stock in any of my local grocery stores. Not even the fish department where I purchased my sole had any.
However, there is a lovely product called “Better than Bouillon”. I’ve used it before as an alternative to bouillon cubes and prefer it for it’s flavor impact as well as the fact that is is made of natural ingredients and contains no nasties like MSG or heavy preservatives. I knew there was a poultry and a beef version, but I was very excited to find a fish version. So I tweaked the broth a bit. I used the bouillon base and added the fresh herbs, peppercorns and lemon zest the recipe called for.  If you do go this route, there is no reason to add salt, as the bouillon has a good deal of salt already in it. Also, in regards to the broth, I did not use the blade mace that it calls for. Blade mace is hard to find in stores and since I didn’t have the time to wait for it to come by post, I opted instead ground mace. I estimated the amount (not knowing how big a blade of mace is) and used about a third of a teaspoon for a two and half cups of broth.
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While not exactly a dinner for 400, I was lucky enough to get a chance to cook this meal for company. Dearest Sister and Brother in Law were visiting that week with the kids. Brother in Law is a chef by profession and was eager to see how the dish turned out. While it was a little intimidating making dinner for someone whose training and career is cooking professionally, it was well received by all. If all challenges are this tasty, I can’t wait to try some more. I already have the next two lined up.

Click here for the recipe.

Written content of this post copyright © Christina Alexandra, 2015.

10 comments:

Anne Stenhouse said...

That's really fascinating, thank you. I love fish dishes, enjoy white wine and have to cook for a chef in the family. sounds ideal, anne stenhouse, novels now

Catherine Curzon said...

I'm tempted to have a go at it myself!

Renee Miller said...

What a great post! So glad it was a success.

Catherine Curzon said...

We love a happy ending!

Alina K. Field said...

Fascinating post, Christina. Though I'm not a fan of seafood, I'd love to try a Regency beef dish. Can't wait to hear about your next project!

Catherine Curzon said...

I really recommend Christina's site, it's a fantastic resource!

Christina Alexandra said...

It was do simple, I was surprised! Looking at the original ingredient list was overwhelming, then BiL said it was a basic stock. Once I realised that, it went quick & easy. 20 minutes, tops!

Christina Alexandra said...

I'll have to find one. There are do many Regency & Georgian recipe sites and books. The hardest part would be interpreting to modern measures. Luckily, most have that done. ;)

Christina Alexandra said...

It was a fun expirement, too! I have grand plans for my next challenges... ;)

Christina Alexandra said...

Aw, thanks! I just love edible research. ;)