What was the best meal in history?

From rat pie to diced calf's brain, five food historians introduce a selection of palate-pleasers from the past...

Almond Hedgehog: A debonair addition to the hostess’s armoury in the Georgian period. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)
1

Boiled rats in a pie

A skinned treat for rich and poor in the Victorian period

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Rat pie is a dish that straddled the classes in Victorian Britain. Traditionally a delicacy from the north of England, one recipe for rat pie that appeared in the Sheffield Independent newspaper on 22 April 1879 suggests preparing and cooking it in the same way as a rabbit pie. The rats should have their tails and skin removed, readers were advised, before being dressed and washed and cut into four pieces. It was also recommended that the meat should be combined with a little pork fat before being encased in pastry, to create a sort of jelly like an aspic. Sometimes rats would be fried in hot oil to remove all the hair, or they could be skinned and boiled.

Boiled rats in a pie
Boiled rats in a pie. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)

RD Blackmore’s three-volume 1880 novel Mary Anerley – A Yorkshire Tale provides further evidence that rat pies were indeed consumed in this region. One of the book’s heroes, who has just returned home from  war, announces that he will not eat the rat pie that his wife has prepared for the family –  a dish so lowly that he compares eating it to being forced to “poke about with pots and tubs, like a pig in a brewery, grain hunting”.

Victorian travelling communities were said to feed on rats as a readily abundant source of food. Sailors also ate them at sea when rations were running perilously low.

Yet, as well as providing sustenance for the desperate, poor and labouring classes, rats were considered a delicacy among wealthy British professional epicures. French cuisine was as integral to British culinary culture in the 18th and 19th centuries as it is today, and an 1870 menu from one of Paris’s leading restaurants lists rats cooked in the ashes of roasted dog’s leg and then served in a pie with mushrooms. If French gastronomes were eating rat pies, it’s safe to assume that their British counterparts were tucking in to them too.

Emma Kay is the author of several books on food history, including Dining with the Victorians: A Delicious History (Amberley, 2015).


2

Cockentrice

A bird-pig combo that had royals salivating in Tudor times

In an extravagant dinner to impress the king of France, Henry VIII spent the equivalent of £5m on a feast that included 2,000 sheep, 1,000 chickens and a dolphin. Many dishes were designed to amaze, of which some notable examples used the technique of ‘engastration’: a method of cooking in which the remains of one animal are stuffed inside those of another (similar to today’s ‘four-bird’ roasts).

A cockentrice.
A cockentrice. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)

‘Pandora’s cushion’, for instance, was a boned goose stuffed with a boned chicken, which was stuffed with a boned pheasant, which in turn was stuffed with a boned quail. ‘True love roast’ featured 12 birds – one for each day of Christmas – and contained turkey, goose, chicken, pheasant, partridge, pigeon squab, Aylesbury duck, Barbary duck, poussin, guinea fowl, mallard and quail along with a herb and fruit stuffing.

The ‘helmeted cock’, meanwhile, was a combination of pig and capon (a castrated fattened cockerel) in which the animals were roasted separately before the capon was arranged in such a way that it appeared to be riding the pig – and wearing the coats of arms that honoured the lords present.

But possibly the most famous concoction was the ‘cockentrice’ which called for a capon to be boiled, cut in half and sewn to the rear end of a young (suckling) pig. The other halves were used in a similar fashion, with the head of the pig sewn onto the rear end of the capon.

Cockentrice were common entries at great dinners, and a cokyntryche is listed among the many feast items at a festival given by John Stafford, bishop of Bath and Wells, on 16 September 1425: “Take a capon, scald it, drain it clean, then cut it in half at the waist. Take a pig, scald it, drain it as the capon, and also cut it in half at the waist.

Take needle and thread and sew the front part of the capon to the back part of the pig. And sew the front part of the pig to the back part of the capon. Then stuff it as you would stuff a pig. Put it on a spit, and roast it. When it is done, gild it on the outside with egg yolks, ginger, saffron and parsley juice. Serve it forth for a royal meat.”

Terry Breverton is the author of The Tudor Kitchen (Amberley, 2015).


3

Delicious succulent peacock

A status symbol for elite taste buds in the medieval period

The great and the good in late medieval England usually sat down to two or three courses at mealtime. The first course often consisted of a pottage, boiled meats and a fried dish. The second tended to be made up of roast meats and great birds – such as swan – as well as pottage and a set cream dish, jelly and fritter. The meal was usually rounded off with small birds and more fritter.

If that wasn’t enough to sate their appetites, in between these courses the diners might tuck in to a ‘subtlety’ or ‘in-between’ dish. These were originally delicacies, but later became table set-pieces such as sculptures that had a particular political message. The religious calendar determined what was served, because in the highest echelons of society many people abstained from meat on up to half the days of the year – when they ate fish instead.

People did not eat with forks but, instead, just spoons and knives, which meant that many ingredients were ground down to a pulp and then reshaped in new forms.

Stuffed peacock
Stuffed peacock, a delicacy. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)

For medieval aristocrats, food was intimately connected with display – and this was especially true of peacocks. These birds could be found in medieval England in small quantities on manors, where wealthy families kept them for show and for exhibiting on the dinner table. The bishop of Bath and Wells is known to have had one on his manor of Fulham in the 1330s.

A mid-15th-century recipe book describes how to prepare a roast peacock. The bird was to be flayed, keeping the skin and feathers together. The peacock was then roasted, with the legs positioned as they would have been if the bird were still living, sitting down. Once the meat was cool, the cook was to dress the peacock again in its skin and feathers “and serve him forth as if he were alive”.

Recipes from the great 14th-century French cookbook known as the Viandier of Taillevent – generally regarded as having been compiled by Guillaume Tirel, a leading cook at the court of France – used a framework to support the bird’s neck and to display its tail feathers. The same recipes also describe the peacock’s flesh as being eaten with fine salt.

While there was a long-standing myth that peacock flesh was incorruptible, cooks suggested that it should be kept for about 30 days. That said, its gastronomic value was already being questioned: in 1429, Maistre Chiquart, the cook of the Duke of Savoy, recommended dressing a more palatable roast goose with the peacock’s feathers rather than the peacock itself.

CM Woolgar is the author of The Culture of Food in England, 1200–1500, set to be published by Yale University Press in March 2016.


4

Calf’s brain with eggs and giblets

In Roman times, this was a diced delight for ancient palates

Last summer, I ran a cookery class at the Latin Summer School in Wells. In a steamy home-economics room, 20 students chopped, pounded, sliced and diced their way to a Roman meal. The results were brilliant: fried pasta, pea omelette, broad beans and bacon, ham in a spicy sauce, pine nut puree, honey and nut cake. After half an hour of eating, all that remained of the dishes were the pictures on various social media.

Roman cuisine can be as practical and tasty as these examples seem to illustrate, but there is another side to it. Not everyone might thrill to the testicles, boiled flamingo, dormice and jellyfish that feature in the cookery book known as Apicius (which was written by an author of the same name). While at school, I worked my way through much of this compilation from the late fourth century AD, bringing in dishes such as spiced sausages for my fellow students to sample.

The work is divided into 10 books or sections. Each has a theme: for example, the third book is devoted to garden produce. Here can be found a wonderfully spicy dressing for lettuces that is redolent of the vigorous Roman trade with India. Such was its value that, at one trading station on the subcontinent, a temple to the emperor Augustus was even erected. Among the elaborate recipes that I found as I worked my way through the fourth book  was one that required me to cook brains.

Calf's brain with eggs and giblets
Calf’s brain with eggs and giblets. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)

I reassured myself that, as a toddler, I had apparently enjoyed eating brains. The local butcher provided me with half a calf’s brain. As the recipe instructs, I braised it, after removing the more fibrous parts. Frying the eggs was fine. So was steaming the previously soaked salt fish. The sauce was a reduction of sweet wine seasoned with ground pepper, finely chopped lovage and rue, and thickened with starch.

So far, so good. But the Romans sometimes enjoyed strong tastes, and the final ingredient was chicken giblets. As I chopped these up ready for frying, I wondered whether I had been overly generous with quantities. Still, the recipe could always be tested out again.

I finely diced the brains and chopped the eggs. Then I added the chicken giblets. I placed the mixture in a round serving dish, shredded the salt fish and put in a mound in the centre – very pretty. Finally, I poured the sauce over. It was time to eat.

In grim scenes, Greek tragedy has woebegone characters exclaim “oimoi, talas” – “alas, wretched me”. This was my Greek tragedy moment. No other Roman dish has repelled me. One taste of this one and I knew I would never be trying out an adjusted version – despite how highly the dish had been rated by Roman diners.

The pungent smell of chicken giblets and brain lingered long afterwards in my olfactory senses. As the first-century BC Roman poet Lucretius put it: “Ut quod aliis cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum”. “What is food for some, bitter poison it is for others.”

Mark Grant is the author of Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens (Serif, 2008).


5

Almond hedgehog

A debonair addition to the hostess’s armoury in the Georgian period

The ‘Hedge-Hog’ from English cookery writer Hannah Glasse’s 1747 bestseller The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy is a slippery beast of almond paste, coaxed from the yolks of 12 eggs, cream, sugar, almonds and butter. It is flavoured with the typical Georgian tastes of orange-flower water and ‘canary’, or wine, and perhaps coloured with tincture of saffron or juice of sorrel. Sculpted into shape by an expert cook, it is stuck with almonds for spikes and currants for eyes and perhaps floated on a lake of calves’-foot jelly (the task of boiling the wretched feet delegated to the lowliest kitchen maid).

Almond Hedgehog: A debonair addition to the hostess’s armoury in the Georgian period. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)
Almond Hedgehog: A debonair addition to the hostess’s armoury in the Georgian period. (Illustration by Clair Rossiter for BBC History Magazine)

This would initially appear to be the sort of contrivance that we would serve to amuse at a children’s party – although, admittedly, modern kids probably wouldn’t actually eat it – but it was a serious player in the arsenal of the Georgian hostess. When Glasse bills it “a pretty side-dish at a second course, or in the middle for supper, or in a grand desert [sic]”, she means it would be one dish of many, sweet and savoury together. Served in the first or second course, it would have been placed with exacting symmetry on the table for diners to discover as they trooped in to their mid-afternoon dinner. Or it would be found with other edifices of sugar, jelly and fruit for the dessert course at a ball supper, eaten in the early hours of the morning.

In spite of its debonair whiff of novelty, the recipe looks back to two stalwarts from Tudor and Stuart cookery: the custard and marchpane, the latter of which was somewhat like present-day marzipan. Indeed, Glasse’s Hedge-Hog didn’t belong to the fresher, unpretentious food increasingly adopted by the new powerhouse in culinary matters: the middle-class hostess. Nor was it part of the highbrow club of French-inspired ragouts and fricassees that were aped, admired, mistrusted and denigrated by the same ladies in equal measure. It also lacked the staying power of the glamorous moulded jellies and the new wow that was hitting the culinary circuit at the time: ice-cream. It is, instead, adorably, eccentrically and quintessentially Georgian.

Pen Vogler is the author of Tea with Jane Austen: Recipes Inspired by Her Novels and Letters (CICO Books, 2016), in which a simplified recipe for this dish appears.

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This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine