An Original Subtlety
By Honorable Lady Sosha Lyon’s O’Rourke
Dining in the Tudor and Elizabethan era was a time of great merriment and fabulous feasting, which sought to display a host’s wealth and dining creativity. I have undertaken an original subtlety depicting the great ocean monster “The Kraken”. This subtlety is based on historic president where subtleties could be great works from rolling pachyderm to re-skinned peacocks.
It is the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach. It stays submerged for days, then rears its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of tide. Now, that sound we just sailed through was the space between its jaws, and its nostrils and lower jaw were those rocks that appeared in the sea, while the lyngbakr was the island we saw sinking down. However, Ogmund Tussock has sent these creatures to you by means of his magic to cause the death of you and all your men. He thought more men would have gone the same way as those that had already drowned and he expected that the hafgufa would have swallowed us all. (Orvar – Oddr)
I. A History of Subtleties
Subtleties are works of art in food and story telling. A subtlety should be, per Hunter, an intermission with in a meal between courses that entertains while heavily disguising the origins of the main ingredients. Fooling, or tricking the eye into seeing the unusual and mythical, while using every day food items in unique ways, subtleties promoted thought and good will towards the host.
Hunter notes the coinciding of the change of venue for the banquet course (to another room) to promote conversation in the fifteenth century with the publication in the vernacular of Platos Symposium (defined as a meeting to exchange ideas after a meal… The qualities of wit and wisdom associated with the literary …appear to metamorphose sotil into the more modern sense of subtle through association with the sweetmeat course (Hunter 1986:38,39). Witty conversation was to work with the sweetmeats or confectionery subtleties to help the diner digest physically and mentally. Once the effects of wonder wear off, the need for quick wit, humor and subtle sayings represent the transfer of ingenuity from the chef to the guests. The subtlety is creative and prompts creativity; if the chef can make it, the guest should be able to comment on it. Unlike with many other performance genres, the subtlety relies on ingenuity from both the audience and the director in order to be successful. It also depends on a unique form of ingenuity: playing with nature. (Martins)
An early example, written by an Egyptian caliph in the eleventh century describes from one Islamic feast day a hundred and fifty seven figures and seven table sized palaces made of sugar. Another set of notations of subtleties, occurring from the book Satyricon, by Petronius, wrote that a Roman feast dinner included a rabbit that had been made to look like the mythological winged horse Pegasus. From the 1300 through 1500, subtleties, also known as sotelite in English and an entremet in French, became popular for royal and noble displays as stiff competition between England and France developed during the fourteenth and fifteenth century. (The Renaissance cornered the market on subtleties; art work in food started much earlier). (Mintz, pp. 88/Martins. p 12)
These feats of food were put on by the nobility and very wealthy. These fleeting art works were for display and thought not for a monetary gain at first sight or taste.
The intention of a subtlety is to create an experience rather than something that can be given as a gift or sold. Unlike permanent displays of power, the subtlety it not durable, it spoils, it has a fixed life-span that ends when it is eaten. The subtlety also enters the dining hall in motion: the set itself is wheeled in, fire blazes out of the mouths of beasts and the actors are put into life-like poses intended to be animated by other performers or the imagination. (Martins)
Monarchs put the feasts to good use as ways to make a vivid point, i.e. the inducing of guests to pledge allegiance to a planned crusade. An example of this was when Philip the Fair, at the Feast of the Pheasant, showcased a giant Saracen entering the feasting hall leading an elephant (there is question about the edibility of said pachyderm), with a knight (Oliver de La Marche) playing the role of the captive Eastern church. (Wheaton, pg. 8/Martins). Another example of the royal use of subtleties was by Henry VIII. George Cavendish wrote about a feast sponsored by the great Tudor king in such waxing enthusiasm for the feast “…I do both lack wit in my gross old head and cunning in my bowels to declare the wondrous and curious imaginations in the same invented and devised.” (Henisch, pp. 236/Martins) The feasting was a display to move men and women into wondrous thoughts, glossing over a harsh reality of court life or a grand and compelling gesture.
A subtlety could be simple items such as a redressed peacock on proud display or stuffed fowl riding roast piglets; or as elaborate as a full pastry castle with trees containing candied fruit, glazed and stuffed mythical beasts, and musicians. Allegorical scenes were not uncommon, with themes like “Castle of Love” or “Lady of the Unicorn”. A subtlety could made of just the edible, such as a re-skinned peacock, or as a combination of paper machie and lumber to accent the food in the display. These decorative subtleties were for powerful displays and less about eating, with the production being done by carpenters, metals smiths and painters and very little with chefs. Horace Warpole describes a banquet given in honor of the birth of Duke of Burgundy, where the centerpiece was of wax figures moved by clock work at the end of the feast to represent the labor of the Dauphiness and the happy birth of the heir to the monarchy. (Martins, pp 2/Craig, pp. 17)
Creating a display:
Creating a display seem to rely heavily on allegorical content from myth, fantasy or biblical content, such as the Pegasus from myth at the Roman table (Scully, pp. 107) or Lady of the Unicorn. Part of the thought process that goes behind making a display was how each animal was viewed in allegorical terms.
“…the horns of an antelope might get caught in a bush in
the same way humans might get caught in a life of sin. The nightingale represented love, the elephant implied chastity, the ape, ludeness and lust and the peacock, the purity of someone who never turns to sin.” (Martins)
The main display item, per these views, should play upon the strength of the subjects or as humorous joke on the subject presented.
The menu for adding a subtlety could be during the end of a course or at the end of a meal. One menu described a 5 course meal with a crown subtlety at the end.
“…At each end, outside the green lawn, was an enormous pie, surmounted with smaller pies, which formed a crown. The crust of the large ones was silvered all round and gilt at the top; each contained a whole roe-deer, a gosling, three capons, six chickens, ten pigeons, one young rabbit…
To serve as seasoning or stuffing, a minced loin of veal, two pounds of fat, and twenty-six hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavoured with cloves.
This display put on for an honored guest shows the detail and extravaganza that went into each dish and for the visual delight for the guests, not only for the bodily need of food but also for the intellectual delight and discussion by the guests long after the meal had been consumed.
II. The Kraken Subtlety
This subtlety is done in the style of the Elizabethan subtlety. I fell in love with the subtleties listed in the medieval cookbooks describing how a the front of a chicken was married with the back of a fish forming a cockatrice.
When I decided on the Kraken, I wanted something both medieval and original. Some that combined several different foods that would not normally be touching let alone combined into one dish to create a spectacle type of food.
The Kraken, whose name derives from the Norse Draken, is an ancient maritime creature ranging from the cold northern coast of Norse legend to the warm seas of Greece. The Kraken could be a sea dragon or a serpent with many legs, possibly even resembling an island, which could plunge to great deeps without warning and drag a large ship down. In the tales of the Kraken, ships were dragged into the sea by arms as long and massive as a ships mast.). The Kraken has also been described as a crab-like creature that caused whirlpools when sinking to the depths. (Orvar-Oddr, pp 1/ancient-origins/mythicalrealm)
Erik Pontoppidan, the Bishop of Bergen and renowned naturalist, insisted that the Kraken was “the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation” lending credence that this creature actually existed and not the imagination of ship wrecked sailors with water starved fevered imagination. (mythicalrealm)
Aspects of the legends in common are that the creature was huge, huge enough to pull down a full sized ship with a complete and armed crew. Roughly, the size of an island, there could be tentacles that resembled those of a squid and possibly legs of a crab or a sea serpent. All in all, a combination to give nightmares when sailing the briny sea.
My subject choice is fairly unique. I chose the Kraken, not on whim but on sight. Let me explain. I saw this incredible unique dish and had a period epiphany on what might have been served as a subtlety dish. I was moved and possessed to see this project completed to perfection both in looks and in taste. I had the cooking skill and knew where to gather the ingredients. The paper came together through various research projects and books.
If this subtlety was served in England, the Turkey breed would be the Black Spanish (Spanish turkey) or a Black Norfolk (English Turkey). (Albc-usa) The squid, which would be more common around the English Channel and SW of England and parts of Scotland, could have been used in period being far more common then the cuttlefish. (bristishseafishing.co.uk) The brown crab would have been used for their legs, instead of the smaller crabs which are both period and abundant but do not match the size of the common brown. (bristishseafishing.co.uk) For the shrimp portion, an English cook would have used the common prawn (Palaemon serratus) or their near kin Palaemon elegans, adspersus and longirostris also would have been used. These prawns are differentiated only by small external details such as different segments or leg paddle shape. These prawns and shrimp live in the same areas around England and are devoured with great appetite. (bristishseafishing.co.uk)
Each portion of the Kraken subtlety was cooked separately except the turkey, bacon then assembled into the creature before you.
An Elizabethan kitchen included whole spits from which to turn oxen and pigs in as well as a host of chefs and underling to present a note worthy subtlety for the royal courts pleasure. This varies greatly from a modern kitchen, which is lucky to be able to roast a piglet in…one at a time. Trying to prepare a feast is a multi-week task for cooking of many animals where on a feast day many animals could be cooked at one time in these huge roasting pits.
Redon insists that the first part of an evolved kitchen is the knife. The knife is the first line in slicing, cutting, and chopping the variety of items necessary to prepare a feast. Modern knives are less likely to go dull with the serrated edges, making the process of cutting and chopping easier then in period where a kitchen knife would need to be sharpened periodically.
Next was the mortar and pestle for grinding up spices, herbs, breads and meats for measured inclusions into a chef’s careful creative dish. (Redon) Personally I prefer to use a mortal and pestle for small items; however due to the fact there is only me and not a kitchen of help I find a small coffee grinder or a small cuisinart helps with the items that require more then a tablespoon.
I have used both hand ground and machine ground spices for various cooking projects. I find the hand ground spices are usually a little larger and rougher, than their machine ground counter part, but only marginally, depending on the grinding determination of the cook.
The plates for serving dinner on were of baked bread (trenchers) during Henry VIII and prior ages. During Elizabeth’s reign, her plates were of silver instead of bread trenchers, showing a higher level of dinnerware than previous kings. I used metal pots and pans, trying to duplicate the temperature range of medieval cooking oven and stove with my modern gas stove.
Spices included but were not limited to ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, long pepper, aspic, round pepper, cassia buds, saffron, nutmeg, bay leaves, galingale, mace, cumin, sugar, garlic, onions, shallots and scallions (Taillevent, pp, 230) Spices not only add flavor and color but were also testaments to the wealth of the host adding to the sumptuousness of any given dish. This dish will be relatively light in spices due to the recipes used. This does not negate the importance of spices, but will place an emphasis on the natural flavors of the meat and aquatic items used.
Some times the color was more desirable then the flavor and the spicing used would over power the dish so much so as to be less sumptuous than a less colorful dish. Vivid colors, Wheaton explains, were highly prized and were often achieved at the expense of flavor. Taillevent also suggested more common spices for green coloring such as parsley, sorrel and winter wheat still green. Gold and silver leaf was brushed onto the surfaces of food i.e pastries for a greater visual impact. (Wheaton, pp. 15/Martins pp. 5)
III. Making of the Subtlety
The overall idea for the subtlety is a gorgeous piece of edible artwork meant to invoke the awe and terror of the sea. As I attempted each section, I realized that there were cooking steps within the main cooking dishes, which had to be done such as cooking squid separately from the turkey wrapped in bacon therefore each item is a separate cooking experiment.
With this rough and varied description, I have assembled a subtlety that could have been served at a medieval feast with a nautical theme. The body of the “beast” would have to be from a creature that was very large but still portable and a delicacy. This to my mind could be a turkey brought forth from the New World on a very long and arduous voyage across the sea. To denote the scary but mighty tentacles, I have opted to stuff the arse end of the turkey with octopus, as if the mouth were covered in large tentacles out of a sailor’s nightmare. The legs I made from snow crab for both a tasty treat and scary mobility. The back is covered in bacon to represent the island for which it might lure sailors onto its back before plunging into the depths drowning them. Olives were used for multiple eyes to finish off the truly magnificent and scary of watery beasts.
Rosemary was used to mimic the seaweed and kelp of the deep ocean. Salt was used at the bas to represent the sand and display the wealth of the nobility for whom the subtlety was created by.
The Kraken Recipe:
I have taken the liberty of combining a couple of excellent period recipes to build the Kraken. I used the Scappi’s American Peacock recipe and the Roman Octopus recipe combined to form this very tasty and scary subtlety.
I took a turkey and wrapped it in bacon, weaving it tightly over the breast and legs to form a second skin that is not only allegorical but locks in the juices and flavor.
I decided to incorporate shrimp for the eyebrows. Unfortunately, the first round of eyebrows became exceedingly crispy after spending the same amount of time in the oven as the turkey. I had to switch out the original “eyebrows” for less well-done bacon wrapped shrimp. For the eyes I used oil cured black olives, which is another Italian food item.
While the turkey was cooking I went to work on the octopus and squid. I was unsure how I wanted to use and display the squid but I didn’t want to use whole squid or whole octopus. I would have preferred to have gotten a much much larger octopus or octopi, however there were no shops selling anything other then baby octopus. I bought them knowing the octopus were to small for my imagined display but hoping to put them to use. I did decide to get squid as they had longer tentacles which would be useful for the “mouth” of the Kraken. I pulled out the beak of the squid opening them up and took off the heads of the octopus and the squid.
These were then dunked into boiling water. This had the effect of curling both the squid and the octopi into much smaller and chewier bits with much stiffer arms.
The crab legs were also dunked into boiling water so that they would be come edible.
The crab legs were placed on the plate. The bacon wrapped turkey was then placed on top of the legs. The olives were pinned into place with toothpicks and the squid arms formed both the lower portion of the Kraken mouth and an upper mustache on the turkey.
IV. Period vs Modern
Period wise, the turkey would have been roasted in a large wood-fired oven instead of a gas stove either in a pottery or metal pan. I actually used a large metal pan but not one made in a period fashion. The bacon would have been homemade or bought from a supplier who made it in their kitchen. I tried making homemade bacon using Master Gunther’s recipe. I could not get the slices thin enough to actually wrap or drape properly, also my bacon was seriously odd tasting and way too salty. The squid or octopus (depending on what was a fresh catch for the day) would be cooked in a metal or pottery pan. Again, I used a non-period metal pan for this. The same for the crab legs in cooking and market freshness. The olives would have been brined on a farm then brought to the castle or nobles house (if the farm were in conjunction with the nobility or the market place if further away). The olives I used were bought in a store, not exactly the same as a period market, and brined somewhere else for sale. Hopefully, in a few years my own olive trees will be producing and I can experiment with brining and tasting then.
The display plate is hand thrown pottery in a period style.
My overall impression is that this type of project would have been a chef’s idea of how to both amuse and surprise the nobility with a grand feast for the eyes. The visuals would cause both unquiet, due to the nautical scary tales told, and delight at the unique edibleness of the entire display. If this display were served in period, the Kraken would do what it was suppose to. The display would cause the guests pause while they contemplated the nuances of what was before their eyes.
When I first gathered the ingredients together, I was really nervous putting this piece together. I had never put pieces together in a food item to create a towering monolith of frightful proportion. I discovered that thin bacon just does not cover the turkey very well. Thick cut bacon is needed to keep shrinking to a minimum and maximum coverage (larding) maintained. Once I pulled the crab legs from the pot, things were much calmer. The crab legs fit perfectly on the plate, the turkey looked awesome straight out of the oven and the octopi and squid had boiled very well.
This project was the most fun in making any subtlety I have yet tried. The theme is tasty, unique, and odd. Just the way I like it! The overall project was not difficult, nor were the ingredients (other then the squid/octopus) hard to acquire. Overall, I would gladly do this project again.
Works Cited/Works Consulted:
Craig, E., (1953). English Royal Cookbook, Favorite Court Recipes. Hippocreen books.
Damerow, G., (2010). Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.
Hieatt, C., Hosington, B, Butler, S. (1979). Pleyn Delit: medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. University of Toronto Press.
Hunter, L., (1986) Sweet Secrets from Occasional Receipts to Specialized: The Growth of a Genre; as cited in Banquetting Stuffe. Edited by C. Anne Wilson. Edinburgh University Press.
Markham, G., (1986). The English Housewife. McGill-Queens University Press.
Martins, P. (1998). Subtleties, Power and Consumption: A Study of French and English cuisine from 1300-1500). Nyu.edu
McDonald, W., (2004). Recipes from Banquet dels Quatre Barres.
Redon, O., (1998). The Medieval Kitchen, Recipes from France and Italy. University of Chicago Press.
Renfrow, C., (1996). A Sip Through Time. Pg.113
Renfrow, C., (1998). Take a Thousand Eggs, A collection of 15th century recipes. 2nd edition.
Toussaint-Samat, M., (1992). History of Food. Barnes & Nobles.
The Four Elements of Fire, Joachim Beuckelaer 1569
The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570). Translated by Scully., T., University of Toronto Press.
The Viandier of Taillevent , ed. Terence Scully,(University of Ottawa Press, 1988). As present by http://www.reference.com/browse/subtlety and by Patrick Martins, nyu
The Vianderi of Taillevent., (1998) presented in “A Collection of medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks).
The Well-Stocked Kitchen, Joachim Beuckelaer, 1566
To roast turkey cock and turkey hen, which in some places in Italy are called ‘Indian Peacocks.
A turkey cock and turkey hen are much bigger in the body then an ordinary peacock; and the cock can spread its tail like the peacock….Its breast is broad…its flesh much whiter and softer then that of the common peacock and it is hung for a shorter time then any similar fowl.
If you want to spit-spit roast it, do not let it sit for more then six days in winter before being drawn or in the summer for more then two. Pluck it dry or in hot water…If you want to stuff it, use one of the stuffings of Recipe 115…stick it with fine lardoons of pork fat, although if it is fat, an stuffed there will not be any need for larding; you will have to stud it though with a few whole cloves. Mount it on a spit and cook it slowly, that bird cooking much more quickly that a common peacock. (Scappi, pp. 208-209)
…for every four pounds of beaten pork fat get two pounds of parboiled veal or goat-kid sweetbreads…four ounces of sugar, four egg yolks, a handful of herbs, nine not-too-ripe plums or else muscatel pears…instead of sweetbreads you can use calf, kid or pig brain, parboiled. (Scappi, pp. 193-194)
1 small young turkey
1 lb chopped bacon ends
1 lb bacon strips
3 Tbs sugar
4 egg yolks
Herbs –sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, bruised laurel leaves, parsley – rinsed and chopped
½ lb sweetbread
Whole cloves for studding
I have cooked turkey on many occasions; however cooking a period recipes require a slight mind shift. The stuffing is very different as the main ingredient is pork fat not bread crumbs and there is the inclusion of sugar to counter the savory, not to mention egg yolks instead of whole eggs.
The first thing to do is try to get a heritage turkey, from either a specialty shop or raising one. Should a heritage turkey be unattainable, go for a young turkey NOT an old turkey. The older the turkey, the tougher the meat. Young and sweet is what you would want to serve to the pope or visiting royalty.
Clean out the giblets and set to the side while gathering and mixing the stuffing ingredients.
My first task was to pick herbs from the garden. A handful of or a few stems of each of the above listed herbs were gathered then rinsed well.
Once they were patted dry, I de-stemmed the leaves from woody stalks. The bay laurel I left intact but bruised the leaves for maximum flavor. Everything else was then chopped and set to the side.
The sweetbread was chopped into small chunks and set to the side as well
I used bacon ends for the pork fat instead of raw pork fat.
I could have used rendered pork fat but I don’t think that is what was really used. Rendered pork fat would drip and slide with out actually staying inside the turkey for flavoring, as it has a fairly low melting temperature.
I did not have slightly tart plums on hand. I used dried un-sugared plums with the thought that in period if plums were not in season dried plums (prunes) would have been used instead.
The bacon ends were placed in a bowl. From here I added the sweetbread, herbs, sugar, egg yolks, and dried plums.
Then I mixed well.
I was now ready to stuff a turkey.
The turkey was stuffed to just the right amount.
Once stuffed, I laid bacon strips across the top of the turkey breast “as fine lardoons” (Scappi, pp. 193-194) . A fat turkey is subjective and I like bacon. Bacon is never a bad thing when it comes to meat. So bacon it was on top of the turkey in a criss-cross decorative patterning.
The bacon will shrink so lay the bacon half over the first strip when laying out your pattern. You’ll understand once you’ve cooked the bacon on top of the turkey once.
I did not have a spit handy so had to use a gas stove oven and a rack. From here it was 2.5 hours at 350.
The turkey is incredibly moist while the stuffing is very meaty with savory and sweet flavorings.
Modern vs. Period:
I did not have a period turkey. I could have bought a “heritage turkey” however the packaging did not say what “heritage” and I really wanted a Black Spanish or Black Norway. I am just going to have to raise my own I think.
The herbs came from my garden and were mostly period. The dried plums were from California and did not designate the type which means that a period type of plum was probably not used. The eggs were organic but the sugar was regular table sugar instead of brown or turbinado; however fine sugar was known in Italy at this point.
Sugar- Considered very expensive till the late 1500. Loaf sugar given the name due to the conical shape derivded from refining into a hard and very white refined form. Caffetin or Couffin (English equivalent of “coffer” or “coffin”) named for the form, packed in plaited leaves palm and from the city shipped from called Caffa in the Crimea. Casson a very fragile sugar also considered the ancestor to castor sugar. Muscarrat considered the best of all sugars, reported to be made in Egypt for the Sultan of Babylon. The Italian name mucchera denotes that it had been refined twice. (Toussaint-Samat, pg. 553-555)
I did not have a wood fire spit on which to roast the now stuffed turkey. I had to rely on the modern convenience of a gas stove and a roasting pan with a rack. This does not give the wood flavor that a smoke fire would thought the smoked bacon helps with this; however the heat was maintained at a regular temperature which precludes charred spot or raw and undercooked areas.
For octopus: pepper, liquamen and laser. Serve
(Faas, pp. 341)
2 TBS ground pepper corns
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 tbs garlic or 1 tsp of Asafoetida
The notes say that there are several ways in which octopus was cooked. One of the fastest being, unskinned to preserve the beautiful colors to start. The next cooking method would be to poach for no more then 5 minutes and allow to cool slowly or cook for hours in a very low temperature in white wine, water and herbs. Garlic or asoafoetida could have been added to the water as well.
I gathered the octopus with asoafoetida and peppercorns (pre grinding) next to the stove.
Next the spices were added to a pot of boiling water.
Once the water and spices were at a rolling boil, I added the octopi. Here are the cooked octopi. They look very different from their raw state.