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A Medieval Banquet at Ushaw [Aug. 22nd, 2017|01:16 pm]
On the Monday of last week I received an e-mail invitation to a medieval banquet at Ushaw. Here's the pitch from their website:

Explore the sophisticated, delicate, and international tastes and flavours of medieval cuisine in a fantastic six course medieval banquet. Served in the stunning Professors' Parlour, this amazing banquet will present an array of traditions and dishes from the eastern Mediterranean and the Baghdad Cookbook to English recipes from the 15th century, via French collections and the Durham sauces.

Durham University library holds a significant copy of Richard II's cookbook Curye in Inglysch, from which a number of our dishes draw inspiration, and all of this shall be accompanied by tantalising medieval spiced wines. Local, international, timeless, and time-bound: medieval food in a nutshell.

Canapes and pre-dinner drinks will be served in the Exhibition Theatre, with a private viewing of an exciting new art initiative at Ushaw. Come and meet the artist, and some of the academics she is working with.

It wasn't cheap (which I'm guessing is why that last-minute e-mail campaign), but it wasn't impossibly expensive, it sounded interesting and Ushaw is a stunning setting (this page on their website gives some hints) so we went for it.

Pre-dinner drinks were a heavily honeyed and spiced white wine - the sort of thing I think of as hypocras, but the word wasn't used - handed out by the chef, 'Lord' Trevor of the Court Inn (note to [personal profile] weegoddess: the Court has evidently undergone anther transformation!). The canapés were disks of bread heavily loaded with a tahini-like sesame paste: foods from the Mediterranean were available in the period (to the rich and powerful, and we were, for the evening, rich and powerful), Lord Trevor explained, though he didn't mention the bits of tomato on top (sixteenth century at the earliest, surely?) and it seemed rude to quibble - besides, they were a tasty addition. The art seemed to be mostly light effects played on a video loop: I felt as if I were watching a light show without the music, but I'm not good at contemporary art.

Eventually all the guests had arrived, and we all trooped round the ambulacrum to the Professors' Parlour, where our first course was brought in:


This was described as 'Shrympes - boiled with a sauce vinegar' and arrived in a cloud of dry ice, which was even more spectacular than the picture makes it look. In fact, that's the secret theme, right there: medieval inspiration, but played for spectacle, not for historical geekery: we were served on plates, with not a trencher of bread in sight, and there was an abundance of cutlery: see those forks in the next picture? We took the hint, and didn't toss the shrimp peelings on to the floor, which was not carpeted with rushes. But we did query the dry ice: apparently it had been used to counterfeit smoke, since there are smoke detectors in the ceiling. Which is fair enough.

Hen's broth

'Hen's Broth - spiced chopped hen soup' was thick and savoury, flecked with herbs and pungent with saffron. It was accompanied by half an egg, and the eggs had been boiled wrapped in onion skins, as my father used to do for Easter - it dyes the shells a rich brown, and leaves traces of gold on the egg itself. We were told that the nest of straw was authentic, but I don't remember why. And I didn't see any point to the token piece of (white, French-style) bread.

I didn't photograph the 'Compost - Root Veg sweet and sour'. There are limits. A mixture of turnip, orange carrots, white cabbage and something that might have been a radish, dressed with a very discreet amount of vinegar and lightly sweetened. This wasn't a dish that enjoyed the spotlight, and would have worked better as an accompaniment to the main course:

Sides of Deer in a High Greece Roast

which was 'Sides of deer in a High Greece Roast - Venison haunch, black pudding, stuffed cabbage and lumbard mustard sauce'. We were all rather baffled by the cabbage bundle, which was stuffed only with itself, cabbage stuffed with cabbage. The vegetable which looks like beetroot turned out to be purple carrots: disconcerting, in a good way, to take a mouthful of what looks like one vegetable, and get so strong a flavour of another. The venison was more well done than I cook it, and on its own would have been almost dry. Sandwiched between a thin slice of black pudding and a spoonful of a rich meat sauce lifted with rowanberries, it was fine - but I felt it was a waste of venison.

We had been served another glass of spiced wine, red this time but with the same spicing as the white, and bottles of red, white and rosé were also placed on the table. The spiced wine didn't really work as an accompaniment to food, but after it, the red wine tasted thin and acid; fortunately, mixing the two produced a drink which went rather well with the venison.

Strawberry pottage

Dessert was 'Strawberry Pottage - served with Gyngerbrede': a puree of strawberries punctuated with sliced strawberries, and a big hit all round. I liked the gingerbread, too, a mixture of honey and powdered ginger, very hot and peppery in contrast to the cool strawberries; and that fleck of darkness on the gingerbread is a petal of candied violet, which didn't feel like part of the dish, but was a pleasant surprise in its own right. Likewise the meringue - soft and eggy, an enjoyable texture, but serving primarily as something to which the rice paper bearing Ushaw arms could be attached.

There was a cheese course, too, 'Tarte be Bry - Cheese with Mould':

Tarte by Bry

I had successfully glossed this as 'blue cheese', so that part of it didn't come as a surprise. By now even I was too sated to do more than taste the cheese in a pastry case - hot water pastry, according to Lord Trevor, though not the hot water pastry I associate with raised pies: this was tough enough to remind me of the medieval pastry 'coffins' which are effectively as cooking container, designed to be discarded: but as I say, I was flagging by now. The fig was a welcome touch of freshness, though.

What now? Do we just leave? asked one of our dining companions (we had by chance seated ourselves in a very congenial group of women who work at Ushaw, possibly in the library). By now, nothing would have surprised me, and if a procession had appeared bearing a lance and a grail, I was ready to ask the appropriate question. But no, we had some brief speeches of thanks, and drifted off, very content with our evening's entertainment.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.