Normally, I'd write a reaction to any book I want to share with folks over on my literature and writing blog, Buch Handling. This book, though, just has to be recommended to all my foodie friends and followers. Lawrence Norfolk has given foodies a taste of the life of a cook during the late 17th century. I've given you ... bread!
Our story opens with John Sandall, a boy who is orphaned in his teens and packed off to the manor house of Sir William Fremantle. He has lost his mother, a renowned herbalist and mid-wife, who has given him her knowledge over time and during a desperate flight from zealous Puritan townsfolk. When his mother dies during the depths of a cold winter, John is taken by tradesmen to Sir William's household. There, he is put to work in the kitchens and it is there where the master cook discovers his talented palette and deep knowledge of herbs, spices, foraging and cooking.
John changes his name to John Saturnall to hide his true identity and proceeds to learn all he can from Master Scovall, the master cook. Gradually, he is given more and more responsibility in the kitchen, until he is tasked with creating a 'sweet' for the visit of King Charles I, as his court processes throughout the English countryside. Surprising results bring John to a new position within Sir William's household, but the food and the food preparation remain the center of John's life until ...
John's life becomes complicated by love, when he must cook and present dishes to Sir William's daughter. She has sworn to starve rather than marry the pathetic dandy that her father has chosen for her. A political marriage is not to her liking, so a hunger strike plays out. Lady Lucretia's maid sneaks her bits of the manchet bread that John orders baked every day for general household consumption so that she can stick to her rebellious show. John, though, discovers her subterfuge and is determined to give her nourishment. What starts as a test of John's talent as a cook, becomes a pact of love between the two.
And the plot thickens. This story is rich with authentic cooking terms from the 17th century, well researched descriptions of manor life and kitchen lore. Tied up neatly in the plot is also an ancient story of Saturnalia ... changed and morphed, linked somewhat to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and having a part to play in a book of herbal and cooking lore that John's mother has carried with her through her life and that provides incredible knowledge. You can just imagine what the Puritans would have to say about this pagan knowledge. John must hide his knowledge source. It becomes even more crucial that he keep a low profile, as Cromwell comes to power and King Charles I loses his monarchy to the Parliamentarians. No spoilers here ... John and Lucretia's tale has its highs and lows and the ending of the novel is unexpected, but very satisfying.
Lawrence Norfolk has given us an incredibly rich book ... and I highly recommend it for those who love historical fiction, food history, and a good romance done well.
Manchet bread seems a fitting tribute to this book. It lured Lucretia Fremantle and it will lure SB. He loves a good loaf! This is a very old and basic bread, one that would have been baked in very large quantities on a daily basis to feed the entire household. Fine flours would have been used for the high table and coarser grinds (read whole wheat flours for the lower tables). During feudal times, bread was the main food for the masses. This bread is pretty complete in its nutritive punch ... it has eggs, milk, a bit of sugar, butter, and grains ... that covers most of what people need to get through the day - protein, carbs, fats. Eaten with a chunk of cheese and a glass of cider or beer, the average person could work for much of the day and still feel satisfied.
The recipe I am using is fashioned after Bath buns, a richer version of the original basic Manchet white loaves, as sugar and some spices have been added to make a richer and sweeter version. This recipe makes two medium-sized round loaves ... enough to hollow out and have as stew bowls with the torn bits left to sop the juices or make into croutons or grind to bread crumbs for dressing a bird or chunk up to make a sweet bread pudding or ... let your imagination run wild!
I am making six very small loaves so that I can freeze some for later use. I have in mind a stout-based stew when the weather changes ... perfect cold weather fare that definitely calls out for a crusty loaf for sopping the gravy. You'll notice, too, that I've placed the loaves in large muffin pans ... this is a very loose dough. Manchet loaves are traditionally flatter breads. I like height to my loaves so tend to bake them in containers like muffin pans (for small loaves ) or casseroles (for loaves that are 9 inch or so round). You can do what you wish.
... shiny crusty small loaves with a warm ginger spice ...
small loaves fashioned after Bath Buns
3 cups bread flour
1 tbsp. active dry yeast
3/4 tsp. Kosher salt
6 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. mace
6 tbsp. butter, melted
3/4 c. milk, warm
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
Place the dry ingredients in a deep bowl. Whisk together and then form a well.
Beat the eggs into the milk. Add the wet ingredients and mix to make a sticky loose dough.
Cover and let rise for 1 1/2 hours. Push down the dough. Divide evenly into six lumps. Roll into balls and place in oven proof bowls to help the small loaves keep their shape. Let rise for one hour.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Farenheit. Brush the risen loaves with an egg/milk glaze. Place the risen loaves in the center of the pre-heated oven and immediately lower the temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the loaves are firm and golden topped.
Remove them from the oven and tip them out of the pans to a cooling rack. Cool and rewarm to serve with herbed butter or dollops of jam.
Other Ideas: Hollow out the centers and fill with cream soup or a warm spinach dip, the possibilities are endless!
An Afterword -
We broke one of the loaves in half after it cooled for a bit and slathered it with a peach and jalapeño jam that I made yesterday. The heat of the jam blended well with the ginger spiciness of the warm bread.
... standard peach cinnamon jam with two spicy jalapeños chopped and added ...
This jam was made with the bumper crop of jalapeños that I have been gifted from a friend. It's warm and very spicy and will be perfect added to salsa for a peach salsa twist, slathered on grilled Cheddar cheese sandwiches, spread over a baked Brie and served with Carr's water crackers, used as a glaze for baked chicken breasts or a pork tenderloin. It's a small batch so I'm sure it will be gone before the year is out.