Monday, June 17, 2013

The ingredients: Lait Larde part 2

The ingredients
(wherein Kiriel establishes that lards aint lard, and investigates the pH of verjuice)

This recipe contains few ingredients, but the use of them is not as simple as you might assume! So let's go through each one.

  1. Saffron

Saffron was the King of spices in the medieval world. Incredibly expensive, outrageously colourful and equally exquisitely delicate in flavour, these flower stamens remain today the world's most expensive spice. The strands are toasted lightly to dry them out so that they can be ground up and added to dishes. Imitation saffron powder will give a similar colour, however will not give the very specific flavour that real saffron imparts to the dish.

Just as Taillevent cooked for Kings, so I cook for judges deserved of great esteem, and thefore use a generous portion of this precious spice.

  1. Lardons

The 1611 French/English dictionary describes lardons as “the little slice or piece of lard wherewith meat is stucke”. In modern France this remains pretty much the same – lardons are something akin to what we would call “bacon bits”, but in a more of a thick matchstick form.

Whatever form they are in, one thing is reasonably sure – medieval lardons would have been saltier than modern equivalents. Smoking and salting meat was the most common way of preserving meat, as refrigeration options were much more limited for the medieval cook. A well smoked and/or salted ham can be eaten for years – unlike the average slab of bacon you buy in the supermarket now! Try a lovely slender slice of Spanish jamon iberico and be converted forever away from pale and flaccid bacon!

For my initial experiments with the recipes, I tried a supermarket bacon, but it quickly became clear that as one of the fundamental flavours of this recipe, it just did not work.

I tried the recipe again with a mature salt cured speck and the improvement was enormous, but it still was missing the smoky flavour I felt was needed.

I visited two butchers that smoke their own meats and bought a wedge of speck from each. They were very different from each other and both delicious, and choosing which was the better flavour was challenging (oh the sacrifices I make for my cooking, eating lots of bacon flavoured cheese!)

  1. Milk

Milk of course in period was not homogenised nor pasteurised. Homogenisation is the process by which the fats (the cream) in milk are broken up and distributed through the milk, where naturally they would slowly rise to the top of the bottle or carton as cream. Pasteurisation is a process whereby milk is raised to a high temperature to kill off bacteria.

What difference does this make to cheesemaking? Ask any French cheesemaker and they are likely to simply throw their hands up in the air and mutter something along the lines of “Philistine!” at the question. Homogenisation does not in my experience in fact make a great deal of difference at least at the level of cheesemaking in this recipe.

Pasteurisation does make a difference. Hundreds of modern French and Swiss cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk. These cheeses tend to have a far stronger smell than any Australian cheese you will ever have tasted, although surprisingly, often a far milder taste than you expect. Unpasteurised milk is hard to get in Australia – you can sometimes buy it as “bath milk” from organic shops.

Other things that also made a difference in period, and in some countries continue to make a difference is the season, and the feed the animals eat. The amount of fat and lactose in milk changes according to the season and the taste and properties of the milk change dependent on the diet of the animal – Vacherin Mont d'Or for example is made from a mixture of milks – one part from when the cows eat spring grasses, and one part from when they eat hay – oh and only from one particular mountain in France. 

I might as well do a bit of myth busting while I am on the subject of milk.
You are sure to have seen in the shops "Permeate free milk" advertised as if permeates are some evil chemical. Well in fact permeates are a mix of  milk-sugar (lactose), vitamins and minerals that are found in milk.  Because the qualities of milk from the cow change seasonally, adding (or not) permeates allows dairies to have consistency in milk across the year, which among other things means that they don't have to make a different nutrition label for every batch of milk, and means that the milk you buy today will have the same qualities as the milk you buy tomorrow. No evil, just consistency.  Whether you feel you want consistency in your milk is another question that I won't get into here.

I tried this recipe with both homogenised and non-homogenised milk, achieving the same results.
You do need to use whole milk though, not skim or non-fat!

I made the decision not to use sheeps milk a) because I couldn't find it and b) I thought it best to try and get a more familiar taste in the cheese.

  1. Verjuice

I started this experiment trying both verjuice and wine (as per the James Prescott version of the recipe). With new white wine, the milk refused to curdle. With verjuice it refused to curdle. A few days later the same wine (having sat on the kitchen bench) mixed with verjuice did curdle. I also tried with red wine which worked excellently:

But of course then I discovered that my recipe was wrong, so had to abandon the whole wine experience. I tried again with verjuice and again it failed. I tried with verjuice mixed with lemon juice and had much greater success. So   I decided it was time to investigate the properties of verjuice a bit further.

Verjuice is unfermented grape juice produced from early season grapes – picked before they are fully ripened. But the acidic qualities of verjuice differ from grape to grape, and within the season Menagier de Paris states that “in July old verjuice is very weak and the new is still too sharp. After this time, during the harvest, a mixture of half old and half new is best”. (recipe 279).

It was common in period too, to have substitutes for verjuice, since its unfermented nature meant that it did not preserve well. In the Italian period cookbook Libro della Cocina, it is advised that you could use lemon juice, orange juice or rosewater as substitutes. Menagier de Paris even provides a recipe for a sorrel based verjuice.

I concluded that the verjuice I had (Maggie Beer) was probably a bit more sophisticated and less acid than period verjuice. To test the acidity of my verjuice, I sought out testing strips. After some searching I had to settle on purchasing a set of strips to test swimming pools and spas. Unsurprisingly the acidity of lemons is rather off the scale compared to that of the average swimming pool but it still provided some useful data. 


I compared Maggie Beer verjuice, Anchor verjuice, (squeeze) lemon juice, and later, vinegar.

The Maggie Beer tested slightly differently to the Anchor verjuice, which showed equivalently to the lemon juice in both alkalinity and pH. Interestingly the Anchor showed very low traces of free chlorine, and the vinegar's pH test result was outright bizarre.

So from then on I used the Anchor verjuice, to much better effect. The taste of verjuice in the cheese is quite different from lemon and very pleasing.

  1. Cloves

Freshly ground cloves – ah that smell, redolent of mulled wine and easter buns! An absolute staple in every sophisticated medieval kitchen, cloves were among the most prized and necessary spices. Every cook would have a pouch of cloves and they were an essential ingredient in the classic medieval spice mixture, powder forte.

You may feel wary that something as spicy and strong as cloves would overwhelm this dish, but have faith... there is something magical that seems to happen when you combine cloves and speck...!

  1. Pine nuts
There are many species of pine that produce edible pine nuts. As an ingredient in my research I have seen them mainly being used in period Italian and French cookery.

A brief mention of tournsoc:

This is Gozophoria tinctoria, a lichen – it is naturally blue but turns red in acid situations and blue in alkaline – presumably the combination of it and saffron creates the green mentioned in the recipe.

Le Viandier de Taillevent – Vatican manuscript
Le Viandier de Taillevent – Sion manuscript
Le Viandier de Taillevent – Mazarine manuscript
Le Viandier de Taillevent – Biblioteque Nationale manuscript
A dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave

Early French cookery – Scully
The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages – Terence Scully

Le Viandier de Taillevent – James Prescott *I do not recommend using this!


  1. Fascinating to read about the incredible journey behind the delicious sample tasted at your place.

  2. I'd love to hear the thought process behind choosing verjuice rather than the whole eggs... I think this apprentice needs to email her Laurel.

  3. You can buy electronic ph testers from place like Jaycar. I'm not sure how food safe pool ph test strips are