Robert May’s Braised Brisket: British Beef, French Style

 

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This post presents the second recipe from a series of updated recipes that I developed for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019). You can also find a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

The British are known for their beef. Although poultry, lamb, pork, game, fish, and shellfish abound in British cookery books from the early modern period, beef stands out. Beef is also a perennial refrain in Shakespeare’s works: The Duke of Orleans mocks King Henry’s army’s distress in the middle of Henry V by saying they are “out of beef”; Shylock ponders the difference between a pound of human flesh and that of “muttons, beefs, or goats”; Prince Hal addresses Falstaff with the moniker “sweet beef”; and in Twelfth Night louche English suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek proclaims, “I am a great eater of beef” (Henry V III.vii.155; Merchant of Venice I.iii.172; 1 Henry IV III.iii.188; Twelfth Night I.iii.82). Both as sustenance and cultural signifier, cooking and eating beef was associated with British identity in the Renaissance.

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Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook was first published in 1660 and went through multiple reprint editions in subsequent years. On the title page he promises recipes “for the Dressing of all Sorts of FLESH” and in the pages of this cookbook he certainly delivers. Under the engraved portrait of the chef, a few verses promise that May will provide “in one face / all hospitalitie” of the nation and his recipes will inspire “tables” groaning with “Natures plentie.” For British chefs this certainly meant how to prepare tempting beef dishes.

My brisket recipe updates May’s recipe “To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion” for use in a twenty-first-century kitchen. The following text is from the 1685 edition, but the recipe is also in the first edition from 1660 (I3vI4r).

To stew a Rump, or the fat end of a Brisket of Beef in the French Fashion

Take a rump of beef, boil it & scum it clean, in a stewing pan or broad mouthed pipkin, cover it close, & let it stew an hour; then put to it some whole pepper, cloves, mace, and salt, scorch the meat with your knife to let out the gravy, then put in some claret-wine, and half a dozen of slic’t onions; having boiled, an hour after put in some capers, or a handful of broom-buds, and half a dozen of cabbidge-lettice being first parboil’d in fair water, and quartered, two or three spoonfuls of wine vinegar, as much verjuyce, and let it stew till it be tender; then serve it on sippets of French bread, and dish it on those sippets; blow the fat clean off the broth, scum it, and stick it with fryed bread. (K2r-K2v)

In the French Fashion

You may be asking why I’ve turned to a recipe with the descriptor “in the French Fashion” after talking about the British and their beef. Importing wine from France was a long British tradition. May’s recipe specifically calls for “claret-wine” or French Bordeaux especially made for export to the European market. As Paul Lukacs explains in Inventing Wine, in the fourteenth century British demand for claret was so high that the British imported eighty percent of Bordeaux’s exports. Desire for French claret was “so strong that the Bordeaux wine fleet sailed twice a year—first in the fall, when the ships were filled with as much of the new harvest’s wine as they could carry, and then again in the spring when they transported what was left.” Anglo-French relations had quite a few high and low points between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century when May was writing. Nevertheless, French claret was a mainstay of British drinking and eating culture.

Moreover, stewing or braising beef in wine was an effective way to transform tough cuts like “rump” or “brisket” into tender stews. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat explains the science behind these slow braises. Put simply: the acidic compounds of wine and the low-slow heat tenderize the tough muscle by breaking down its collagen proteins. The addition of acidic capers, wine vinegar, verjuice, and cabbage later in May’s recipe amplifies the potency of the cooking medium. As chef Fergus Henderson shows in his Nose to Tail Eating, it is a very British thing to make use of the whole animal and to use the most effective cooking techniques to render each cut into a delicious dish. A British “Accomplisht Cook,” like May, must make do with the ingredients and methods available to him even if they are, in many ways, French.

Ingredients

2 pounds brisket
2 cups sliced yellow onion
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1⁄2 teaspoon whole cloves
1⁄4 teaspoon mace
1 bottle red wine (750 ml; ideally, French claret or Bordeaux)

4 cups sliced cabbage
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons capers
1⁄2 baguette or other bread

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Pat the brisket dry and then place it in a large pot fitted with a cover. Add onions, salt, black peppercorns, whole cloves, and mace. Pour in wine, cover, and place in the oven for 1 hour. After the brisket has cooked for 1 hour, carefully flip it over. After it has cooked for 1 1⁄2 hours, add cabbage, vinegar, and capers. Check it at the 2 1⁄2 hour mark. It should be tender when poked with a fork. If not, give it more time. If the cabbage is crowded, rearrange as necessary for even cooking. To serve, cut your bread into cubes and arrange them on a platter. Remove the brisket and set it on a cutting board to rest. Remove the cabbage and onions and place them on top of the bread. Reduce remaining cooking liquid for ten minutes until it thickens. Slice the brisket thinly, and place on top of the cabbage, onions, and bread. Pour the reduced sauce over the whole dish. Serve immediately.

Notes

This satisfying dish will serve four to six people. The cubes of bread that May calls “sippets” are a common ingredient in meat dishes from this period. They efficiently and deliciously soak up the rich, flavorful sauce.

Learn More

Albala, Ken. Food in Early Modern Europe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003, especially pages 164–184.

Appelbaum, Robert. Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture and Food among the Early Moderns. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen.University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015,especially pages 35-38.

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This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

 

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Hot Chocolate, William Hughes’s “American Nectar”

This post presents the first recipe from a series of updated recipes that I developed for the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019). You can also find a version of this post on the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

When pirate botanist William Hughes wrote about his adventures with plants in the Americas, he devoted an entire section of his book The American Physitian (1672) to “The Cacao Nut Tree,” which he distinguished from all other American plants. Hughes paid particular attention to the properties and the preparation of chocolate. In the opening of the section “Of the making of Chocolate into a Drink,” he calls the beverage “the American Nectar.”

 

By calling hot chocolate the “American Nectar” Hughes invoked the idea that chocolate was a drink consumed by deities, and pleasurable for those mortals lucky enough to sample it. Chocolate was a revelation to European colonizers. A decade before Hughes published his book, Henry Stubbe called chocolate the “Indian nectar.” British writers repeatedly appealed to its almost otherworldly properties.

Although there are no references to chocolate in Shakespeare’s works, there are quite a few references to nectar. Most poignantly, the potent flower that Puck wields in A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains a powerful nectar that intoxicates the anointed with powerful feelings of love (Act II, scene 2). A powerful nectar is equal parts pleasure and danger: Hughes chose an evocative moniker for his hot chocolate.

Encountering chocolate in early modern cookery books offers evidence of Britain’s troubled colonial past. Accounts of chocolate drinking, recipes listing chocolate among the ingredients, and casual references to chocolate all bear witness to the material and informational exchanges between indigenous peoples and European colonizers in the Americas. Theobroma cacao is a fragile equatorial plant and the seeds that we process into chocolate products are not, on first sight, obviously edible or the source of the dizzyingly delicious chocolate delights available today. Indigenous Americans prepared a range of healthful and delicious beverages with chocolate. Europeans only learned to consume chocolate by mastering highly specialized indigenous knowledge.

When I set out to make William Hughes’s hot chocolate, I was presented with a wealth of possibilities for how to sweeten, thicken, enrich, scent, spice, and spike my drink. Here is a list of all the ingredients that Hughes reports that indigenous peoples and European colonizers put in their hot chocolate:

…chocolate, milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz [corn flour], egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper [hot and sweet varieties], nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote [annatto seed], vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, [and] sack.

Some of these preparations could serve as a meal replacement, others as an energy drink, and yet others as a healing tonic to soothe the body. These possibilities are all present in indigenous American usage and Hughes catalogs them for his British readers. As you prepare your own hot chocolate using this recipe, season to taste. Let your own spirit of adventure and personal tastes guide you as you season your mix and prepare a warming cup.

THE RECIPE

Ingredients

This recipe makes 2 cups of hot chocolate mix.

1⁄4 cup cocoa nibs
3 1⁄2 ounces or 100 grams of a 70% dark chocolate bar, roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup cocoa powder
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄4 cup breadcrumbs or grated stale bread (optional for a thicker drink)
1⁄2 teaspoon chili flakes (substitute 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon for a less spicy drink)
Milk (1 cup of milk to 3 tablespoons of finished mix)

Preparation

Toast the cocoa nibs in a shallow pan until they begin to look glossy and smell extra chocolatey. Combine all ingredients in a food processor, blender, or mortal and pestle. Blitz or grind until ingredients are combined into a loose mix. Heat the milk in a pan on the stove or in a heatproof container in a microwave. Stir in three tablespoons of mix for each cup of heated milk.

Notes

Hughes lists many other ingredients that indigenous Caribbean people as well as Spanish colonizers added to their hot chocolate. Starting with a base of grated cacao, they thickened it with cassava bread, maize flour, eggs, and / or milk, and flavored it with nutmeg, saffron, almond oil, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, fennel seeds, anise seeds, lemon peel, cardamom, orange flower water, rum, brandy, and sherry. Adapt this hot chocolate to your taste by trying these other traditional flavorings.

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Photo by Teresa Wood

LEARN MORE

The information and ideas in this post about chocolate and the knowledge exchanges between Europeans and indigenous Americans are inspired by Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World  (Cornell University Press, 2008).

See also:

Kuhn, John, and Marissa Nicosia, “Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate,The Recipes Project.

Nicosia, Marissa, and Alyssa Connell, “Chacolet,The Collation blog, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Tigner, Amy, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part I,” The Recipes Project.

This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.