Experiments with Green Sauce at the Reading Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age Conference, Queen Mary University

I am currently taking part in the above conference which has been full of different perspectives on remaking early modern recipes (culinary and medicinal). It has set so many ideas and questions off in my head. Today we are all making a sauce, filming the process for digital media, and then reconvening to discuss our sauces and the experience of documenting it all on video.

The sauce in question is this one, kindly provided by the conference organisers Dr Clio Doyle and Dr Helga Mullneritsch

Yesterday we discussed how this could be similar to a green sauce which occurs regularly in medieval and early modern receipt books. It was usually made to accompany fatty or oily meals such as goose, fish, or pork. The version I was aware of, one of which I have made in the past, contained sorrel and apple and was delicious. There are several other elements to this sauce from the German Meister Hans 1460 source that seem familiar. The use of spices we would now associate with sweet foods were often included in savoury sauces for meat and discussions yesterday turned to the inclusion of gingerbread in Polish historical sauce recipes. Also the use of sugar with vinegar here is interesting. It doesn’t appear in the original version but the person who has adapted it, academic Dr Helmut Klug, has included sugar. This would make it more ketchup-like in my mind and, looking at old recipes for green sauce that have been adapted and made by British food historian Peter Brears, a ketchup style sauce is the result. We also considered how this is very much, considering the lack of sugar in the original, telling of the changes in historical and modern flavour palates. We aren’t used to this strong vinegar flavour. I have made savoury chicken dishes in the past that have been overwhelmingly vinegary, particularly when recipes called for thickening agents made up of a paste of vinegar and breadcrumbs.

There have been various calls I’ve had to make as I went through the recipe. The first was the texture of the sauce. How fine or chunky should it be?

The given recipe only gives the quantity for the walnuts so the next question was one of ratios. Am I correct in referring to other recipes that are much later, from a different country, and not necessarily for the same sauce? All this is problematic but then I am never going to create this recipe ‘authentically’ and these variables raise as many questions as answers.

This green sauce for salt or fresh pork is cold and not heated, it also has currants in it, and is thickened with breadcrumbs and egg yolks. It also has sugar in it to add to the sweetness from the dried fruit.

This sauce was never going to be precise in its measurements and proportions and it wouldn’t have been so in the past. The second green sauce, from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), also has sage in it plus breadcrumbs and hard-boiled egg yolk instead of the walnuts.

The method we have been given instructs us to heat the sauce which I felt strange doing. In my head this should be a cold sauce. The original sauce, from the translation I’ve been given, isn’t heated but it has been interpreted as being hot. What difference will the heating process make? Interestingly, another Hannah Woolley recipe, above her green sauce one, instructs the maker to heat the sauce in a chafing dish after grinding up the sorrel into a paste and adding vinegar. She then reduces it before adding lemon juice, sugar, breadcrumbs, and nutmeg.

I was also wondering what effect the heat would have on the nuts and how much more vinegar it would need given that we had the sauce on the hob.

Stay with me while I think out loud during this process. The amount of sage fumes in the kitchen may have clouded my concentration at this point!

What to do next? It tastes (and smells) great but I am resisting the urge to do other things to it. We are planning to have this for our tea with some nice cod – fighting the urge to add lemon and oil.

Extra cinnamon into the mix – I am tweaking, as I suspect early modern cooks would have done. If early modern recipes were often simply an aide-memoire rather than a fossilised record then they allow variation. We all do this in our own homes when we adapt recipes to our own liking.

Adding more sugar had little effect and I was reluctant to add an equal amount of sugar to the vinegar. Thinking on pickled walnuts, there are some early modern versions but these involve young or ‘green’ walnuts, pickled before their shell hardens and so not just using the kernel.

Finally, I thought I’d get a second opinion. Good to see that the vinegar didn’t put him off.

The vinegar and sour nature of the sauce got me thinking about the humoral qualitities of a sauce like this. Sanguine people would need to balance out their blood humour with melancholic foods (opposites attract) and so flavours such as sorrel, vingear, and citrus would be perfect for this. Phlegmatic foods such as fish or waterfowl (e.g. goose) needed strong flavours like sage, mint, thyme, capers, and spices. All food for thought.

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