Previously I have discussed the history of a long lived British culiary technique which involved the serving cooked meat with sauce thickened with egg and a flavoured with a souring agent. Typically, in early recipes the souring agent was verjuice:
A Book of Cookrye by A. W. (1591)
To make balles of Mutton.
Take your Mutton and mince it very fine with Suet. Then season it with Sugar, sinamon, Ginger, Cloves & Mace, Salt, and raw Egges. Make it in round balles. Let your broth seeth ere you put them in. Make your broth with Corance, dates quartered, whole Mace and salt. Thick it with yolkes of Egges, and Vergious [verjuice], and serve it upon Sops.
* Out of interest it is worth comparing this 16th century English dish with a modern Greek dish of Youvarlakia me Avgolemono.
Verjuice is the juice of sour (or unripe) grapes, but in the English tradition it could also made from the juice of other sour fruit, such as crab-apples. Directions for producing simulated verjuice are quite common in Medieval and Early Modern cookery texts for the simple reason that verjuice was a hugely popular cookery ingredient. Verjuice is present in almost every European Medieval recipe collection and it is also commonly found in Medieval Arabic texts. In both cases this was largely due to the fact that during this period both Christian Europeans and Muslims followed the same theory of dietetics, that of "Hurorism". This theory was based on the belief that body was composed of four "humours", when these were in balance, good health insured, when out of balance illness and disease was the outcome. Diet was thought to be a useful method of balancing humours and ensuring health. If you were of a Sanguine temperament (hot and moist), then you needed to counteract this tendency to ensure health. Verjuice was considered by nature to be extremely cold and dry, so perfect in this context. However, it is only in European texts do we fine the combination of egg thickened broth, soured with verjuice. This egg-verjuice sauce was either made from the broth of stewed meat or used to thicken the liquids in pies.
While I have previously discussed the English use of these egg-verjuice sauces, essentially the same type of recipe is found in Medieval and Early Modern English, French, Catalan, Spanish, Dutch and Italian recipe collections. While this was a widespread European tradition that lasted for hundreds of years in Europe, the vast majority of the recipes stopped being made long ago. However in the Pie class of dishes there are at least two notable survivals. Interestingly, in both cases the dishes are considered to be traditional and regional dishes and neither is located in Europe.
The first dish is the South African "Hoender Pastei" (Chicken Pie), a Cape Dutch speciality. This dish is very similar to the ancestoral 17th century Dutch recipes for Chicken "Pastey", as detailed in historic recipe collections such as "The Sensible Cook", the only significant change is that verjuice has been replaced with lemon juice in the modern recipe. Interestingly, this Dutch recipe has inspired another version of the dish in the Cape Malay community. In "South African Cape Malay Cooking" by Sonia Allison and Myrna Roberts, "Hoender Pastei" is described as being "considered de rigeur by Cape Malays for weddings and other celebratory occasions". The main difference between that Cape Dutch and Malay dishes being the inclusion of sago in the latter version.
The other survival of this ancient style of Chicken Pie is the Moroccan "pastilla", ( "bisteeya", bistayla "bastila" or "basteela"). In this instance a tradional Moroccan Pastilla would contain young pigeon or chicken. As in the case of the Cape Dutch "Hoender Pastei", the older style combination of verjuice and egg has been replaced by lemon juice and egg.
Are there any other survivals of this ancient culinary technique of serving meat with a egg and verjuice sauce? In general cuisines are dynamic, while there are well recognised regional cuisines and individual dishes it is well worth considering that most dishes are of relatively recent origin. Ingredients change, culinary techniques change, individual dishes, indeed, whole classes of dishes come in and out of use. Unless we are dealing with an unusual degree of cultural inertia/conservatism, Survival or Relict dishes are rare, and usually survive because they develop a cultural importance outwith the context of deliciousness. Food can be symbollic as well as delicious and where a particular symbollic significance is retained, so might a particular dish. Verjuice was a popular cooking ingredient in Europe because it was thought to be extremely healthy when consumed in the correct manner. Once its significance as a healthy ingredient was diminished then so did its popularity as an ingredient and the dishes that it was used in. Deliciousness doesn't last, most of the worlds delicious foods are now found in libraries, not on the table.
But there are examples of this ancient class of dishes that still exist. Of these "Survival" dishes we have the culinary techniques of thickening a sauce by the use of a liaison. From the Medieval period in the English tradition sauces thickened with egg yolk were know as either a "Caudle" or "Lear". With the rising influence of French cusine during the 17th century the French term "liaison" began to be used in English cookery texts, especially for liquids that were thickened with items other then eggs. From the 17/18th century:
"To make a Caudle for a sweet Veal Pie. Take about a jill of white wine and verjuice mixed, make it very hot, beat the yolk of an egg very well, and then mix them together as you would do mull'd ale ; you must sweeten it very well, because there is no sugar in the pie."
"...Lear, made thus: Take the Yolks of Eggs, a little white Wine or Verjuice, a Piece of sweet Butter, and a little grated Nutmeg; toss these well together, just as you are going to serve them away, till they are thick; garnish your Dish, and serve them up hot"
"For I should have said, that when you put in the Herbs, you squeese in also the juyce of half a Limon (pared from the yellow rinde, which else would make it bitter) and throw the pared and squeesed half (the substance) into it afterwards. The last things (of Butter, bread, flower) cause the liaison and thickening of the liquor. If this should not be enough, you may also put a little gravy of Mutton into it; stirring it well when it is in, least it curdle in stewing, or you may put the yolk of an Egg or two to your liaison of Butter, Flower, and ladleful of broth."
Both the English "Lear" and the French "Liaison" , mean "to thicken" and derive from the same etymological roots. In the modern dishes a liaison still often uses egg, but other thickening agents are also used. The modern white Fricassée is most similar to the 17th century original.
In many of the other Survival dishes, ancient verjuice has almost entirely been replaced by lemon juice. The most striking example of this is seen in the Sephardic Jewish community. In the Eastern Mediterranean Sephardic community there are a range of dishes using a sauce thickened with egg yolks and soured with lemon juice. These sauces are popular are they give a creamy texture to a sauce in a cultural background were there is a proabition on eating dairy produce with meat. These dishes are commonly known as "agristada", indicating their origin as being derived from an older Spanish recipe containing verjuice, not lemon juice, as "Agraz" is Spanish for verjuice. Agristada dishes are found in the Sephadic communities of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Bulgaria and in cities with large Jewish communities such as London. Often the original Judeo-Spanish "Agristada" is replaced by terms from the non-Jewish community, such as the "Tarbiya" in Egypt, "Terbiye" in Turkey, but most often as a local variation of "Egg and lemon" sauce, such as Arabic "Beda b'lemume" or Greek "Avgolemono". In many cases this Sephardic culinary technique has been adopted by the non-Jewish communities, most famously in the case of the Greek "Avgolemono". As the combination of egg and veruice thickened sauces is unknown in Medieval Arabic cookery texts and rare in modern Arabic cuisines, it would seem that where these dishes are found they are derived from the Jewish community.
In modern Spain "Agristada" has survived as a drink of verjuice sweetened with sugar, in Italy the same drink was known as "Agrestata" ("Agresto" is Italian for verjuice), however in Bartolomeo Scappi's "Opera" (1570), Agrestata was a verjuice sauce, that was either thickened with breadcrumbs or egg yolks. Compareing Scappi's recipes with the modern Survival dishes we can see a shift from the use of verjuice to the modern lemon juice; Scappi gives a recipe for Brodetto (broth thickened with egg yolks and flavoured with verjuice), which has survived as a "Brodetto Pasquale" in Florence, except in this case the verjuice has again been replaced with lemon juice. In Rome "Agnello Brodettato" or "Brodetto Pasquale", are again Easter dishes this time stewed lamb is thickened with an egg and lemon sauce. Greek food authority Aglaia Kremezi has told me that a similar Easter Soup/stew is made in Greece and is known as "Magiritsa".*
So while the dishes that have survived that are representative of this ancient class of egg-verjuice thickened sauces may be delicious in their own right, they seemed to have survived in part due to cultural conservatism. Either they are associated with a particular religious festival or because they are associated with a particular religions probation on eating certain combinations of food stuffs. In some cases this class of food has moved outwith this original context, Avgolemono is now consumed by a non-Jewish community without any religious connotations in most cases. But Avgolemono and related dishes in the Eastern Med. would not have developed without the Survival dish Agristada being transported from Spain as part of a cultural package of the Shephardic Jews. Cultural conservatism becomes the catalyst for dynamic cuisine change, a new class of dish becomes a regional classic. How many more of these seemingly dynamic cuisine developments are dependent on the influence of much more conservative cultural elements? How many regional "Classics" are the products of external, rather than internal developments? What are the drivers of these changes? Is it the momentum generated by a huge mass of cultural conservatism or down to more stochastic forces? Connecting the dots between various regional dishes and demonstrating a shared history is interesting, but ultimately not very informative. The important questions to be addressed is how these food networks develop, and what are the processes that drive this development? Cultural conservatism seems to be one process that drives the formation of regional foods, what are the implications of this?
* It was also Aglaia that first told me about the connection between Avgolemono and Agristada.