On Nov. 3, I will be at the Artisan’s Challenge and Display in Blue Bell, Pa. It’s an SCA event where participants can answer challenges put up by others; everything from metalwork, to fiber arts, to cooking, to music, and lots of other things. I’ve gone to this event for the past couple of years, presented or entered a few things, and always had fun.
This year, one of the challenges caught my attention because it offered an interesting twist on my own Norman Sicilian research, “On the Crusaders’ Trail.” During the Third Crusade, Richard I of England, Philip I of France, and Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire planned to go out and free the Holy Land from Saladin.
However, the trip didn’t go quite as planned. Richard and Philip came to Sicily in September 1190, a stop on their way to Palestine. Richard was mad. The former king, William II, was dead, and his wife, Richard’s sister Joanna, was imprisoned by Tancred of Lecce, an illegitimate cousin of William who stepped up to the throne. So not only did Tancred have Richard’s favorite sister in durance vile, he refused to give up her dowry and other moneys she was entitled to as a widow.
When Richard arrived in Messina, he demanded Joanna’s release. Tancred did release her, but with only a fraction of the money she was due. So Richard responded forcefully, occupying a monastery outside the city as well as Bagnara across the straits in Calabria. Richard’s soldiers also made no friends along the local – harassing women, taking food, that sort of thing. The Messinese revolted. Richard and his army then burned and sacked large areas of the city. He built a timber fort, Mategrifon (which translates as “scourge of theGreeks”), and took some noble hostages from the local Messinese nobility.
Tancred, to get this pesky king out of his city and his country, capitulated in November, but with winter making travel to Palestine impossible, Richard and Philip (and their armies) stayed. They didn’t get under way again until March 1191.
Richard held a magnificent Christmas feast at Mategrifon as a sort of peace offering for Philip; the food historian Clifford Wright has some description of the proceedings, quoting the poet Ambroise, who said every dish was gold or silver and there was not a dirty tablecloth in the hall.
Based on this history, I thought a great project for the Artisan’s Challenge would be to have a few dishes that could have been on the table at that Christmas Day feast.
The first problem, however, is that there are no extant 12th century Sicilian recipes. Or French ones for that matter (Richard, though an “English” king, spent most of his time in his mother Eleanor’s land of Aquitaine). So I am looking at cookbooks of a slightly later time and nearby countries, such as the Anonymous Andalusian; and the Liber de Coquina, an anonymously written set of recipes from the early 13th century, probably near Naples, Italy. One of the recipes from the latter struck me, adapted in “The Medieval Kitchen.” Called “Inside Out Stuffed Fresh Sardines or Anchovies,” it is essentially a famous recipe still done in Sicily today, called “Sarde a beccafico.”
Aha. The Sicilian recipe essentially translates as “sardines, songbird style.” Beccafico, “beak figs,” are a small native Sicilian songbird. Songbirds were a popular medieval dish, roasted or fried whole and eaten whole. Sardines done “songbird” style are stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins, lemon juice and/or vinegar, and sugar. The way they are traditionally prepared, they strongly resemble little skewered songbirds on their backs (take a look at the photo at the beginning of this blog entry, the bay leaves even look like wings).
Incidentally, a rare (and now illegal) delicacy in France is roasted ortolan, another small songbird. They don’t bother to stuff them, just roast them and eat them whole.
So, perhaps a pile of stuffed roasted “songbirds” for my Mategrifon feast? Except I will have to use tiny squab or quail (which I incidentally spied in the butcher’s case at my local Amish market this past weekend), because there’s no way that songbirds can be legally obtained for eating in my part of the United States.
You probably are wondering why I just don’t cook the sardines. For two reasons: I hate them, I can’t even bear the smell of them; and also, it’s a king’s Christmas, and roasted songbirds are fit for the table of a king. Perhaps a stew or roast of lamb or beef? Yes, probably. Meat was THE status food after all.
Other things to put on the table? Bread, of course. Perhaps a sweet porridge of ricotta cheese and fruit cooked in wine and sugar? Plausible; ricotta is local, period, and so is sugar. Maybe even as part of a frumenty. There is a traditional porridge made for St. Lucy’s day, of boiled wheatberries with sweetened ricotta, called cuccia, which is very frumenty-ish. Perhaps topped with pomegranate seeds? Pomegranates have a close connection with Sicily, as it is the island of Persephone – she was kidnapped from the plains around Etna, and wound up having to spend half the year with her husband Hades after consuming six pomegranate seeds. And some cheeses probably wouldn’t go amiss, as well as olives. And wine, of course, would have been on the table.
It will be interesting putting this all together.