In the Early Middle Ages eels were abundant and served as comfort food for hungry peasants. Later it turned into a royal and and very expensive delicatessen
The humble and most common way of serving eel was of course to boil it in a soup. Naturally, no medieval recipe of something as ordinary has survived but here is a simple version, which may just as well have been served among the Anglo-Saxons before the market for eels turned into big business in the beginning of the 11th century.
Take eels according to the quality of soup you wish to make. A pound of eels will make a pint of good soup. So to every pound of eels put a quarter of water, a bit of mace, a bit of whole pepper, an onion and a bundle of sweet-herbs (try parsley but also wild nettles, , wild onions and wild goutweed). Put it all into a pot and let it boil to half the liquid is wasted. Strain it and toast some bread and cut it small. Pour the soup over this. Another version would be to cook it with some roots (celery, parsley, carrots etc.) and crab apples (giving it a slightly vinegar taste). There is no reason to believe that peasants would not stick whatever was available into the pot.
A medieval peasant would of course not use pepper in such a simple dish, but rather horseradish. Salt would be taken from the vat with salted pork or simply from one of the salterns near the sea.
In a Southern European context the eels would not be cooked in water, but in wine or almond milk creating a hot and spicy stew much like that which is still served around Valencia (all i pebre). Nowadays it is served tasting of paprika and with potatoes, but with a bit of imagination it is possible to recreate the original version served in the huerta – boiled in almond milk and served with rice (blanche mange). Another version would be the German, where the eel would be left to simmer slowly in plenty of wine for fifteen minutes; at this point saffron, shredded ginger from c. two cm. roots, cinnamon (the same amount), 1 – 2 cloves, and some sugar or honey. Served in the soup!
Yet another version may be had from the Good Wife’s guide. Here we learn that eels should be scalded, flayed and chopped into very small pieces and then cooked in water with wine. This mixture should be sieved together with grinded parsley and bread and finally boiled together with ground peeled ginger and saffron. This broth should be served with morsels of cubed cheese.
In my childhood it was the absolute highlight of late summer, when floured eels were served roasted with potatoes and white parsley sauce. Apart from the potatoes, this was probably not so different from how they might have been served in the Middle Ages with a rich dipping made of butter, flour and milk mixed with herbs.
However, from an Italian Novella from the beginning of the 15th century we learn of another version. Here the eels were cut a bit larger, the size of a palm, and stuck on skewers with bay leaves in between. During the gentle roasting, it should be basted with a dressing of salt, vinegar, oil, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and other spices plus some chopped rosemary. After having been roasted, the eels should be picked apart and the meat placed in an aspic dish and sprinkled with juice from pomegranates, oranges and fine spices. Served warm! [Odile Redon: the Medieval Kitchen, pp. 119 – 21]
The recipe we find in The Good Wife’s guide is somewhat more simple. Called Saracen broth, we learn that the eel should be skinned, cut into small pieces, sprinkled with salt and fried in oil. Now the eels should be sprinkled with a mixture of ground spices – ginger, cinnamon, clove, grain of Paradise, galingale, long pepper, and saffron to give colour. Mixed with verjuice, the soup of the eels will thicken. (p. 294)
A variation of all this was thus that eels might be served made into ‘sops’ (food soaked in liquid) In this variation the eels would first be roasted and then served in a liquid, which might be more or less strained. We also learn from this guide that larger eels should preferably be served in a white garlic sauce and cheese, while smaller eels were best cooked with parsley and onion.
Eels can keep if they are cooked in vinegar. In one version from the 17th century, they would be skinned and cooked for half an hour in a strong mixture of vinegar, water, salt, some spices and a bay-leaf or two, placed in a jar and covered with the soup (which will then turn into the jelly). One particularly good seasoning would be a quantity of red sage. In a medieval version of this we are told the eel should be left to die in salt for three days and nights. Then it should be scalded and skinned, before cooked in a mixture of water, wine and small onions or leeks.
It stands to reason an ubiquitous French version of eel would also be to turn it into a confit. Grind the eel when it is cooked and mix it with whole raisins and put the mixture into the eel-skin and roasted. Or it might simply be preserved as a Confit in a typical pot.
This is the classical medieval recipe, which can be found in a number of cooking books. Common to them all, though is the raisins, the milk from the almonds and the hot spices – ginger, cinnamon, pepper, mace etc.
The first recipe is from Maestro Martino’s writings (Libro de Arte Coquinara 1465). According to this eels should be skinned, cut into pieces the size of two fingers (app. a mouthful) and boiled until nearly but not quite tender.
Next step is to make a mixture of a) some nice and dense almond milk strained with some good verjuice and rose water b) some pounded raisins and three to four dried figs c) ripped or cut spinach and d) a handful of raisins, and some shelled and cleaned pine nuts mixed with ginger, cinnamon, pepper and some saffron.
next step is to prepare a pie crust into which the eels and the mixture are layered until topped with the rest of the pie.
Another version prescribes that the eels should be cooked with parsley, mint and purslane and then taken apart by hand. After having discarded the skin and bones. The sauce to mix the meat of the eels is made of almond milk, crushed walnuts (skinned with boiling water), more herbs and strong spices like above plus twelve chopped dates.
In a third recipe, the mixture of the filling is made from the ingredients from the first version, but now also mixed with fish roe and – if it is not lent – two egg yolks, which should be whisked into the cool sauce in order to thicken it.
In short: be heroic and “think” eels or mackerels plus a sauce consisting of chopped nuts, herbs, dates, raisins or figs mixed in a slightly sour and spicy sauce made of almond milk and thickened with eggs; all layered into a traditional pot pie of your choice.
In a Southern European context these might be served as open tarts instead of closed pies. (“Think” pizza with eel).
One such elaborate version can be found in the good wife’s guide, where we are told that a Jacobin tart could be made by scalding eels and cut them into very small pieces (half a finger). At the baker a tart should be made by layering crumbled cheese, eel, more cheese, crayfish tails as long as there is room for more layers. This tart should be placed in the oven for a bit, while a sauce is prepared of boiled milk, tasted with saffron, ginger, grain of paradise, and clove. “be sure to add salt to the milk”, we are recommended, but do not cover it (the moisture is obviously intended to evaporate. Finally, when baked, more crayfish tales should be fanned our “decoratively” and the pie should be fitted with a lid, baked separately.
Eels might of course also be baked into breads or cakes. This is known from the Danish countryside in the 19th century, when eels were plenty. Here the housewife would make a dough of half wheat and half rye, all sifted and fine, and using yeast. When the dough had risen, lumps were rolled into oblong pieces. On one of these were buttered and layered with one, two or three pieces of eel. This was then covered with another oblong piece of dough, securing the baste inside. Baked and served hot it was known as a delicious treat. Those with three eels were brought down to the local vicar, while the clerk would receive those with two eels. It is now known how old this tradition is.
However, from fifteenth century England a slightly more luxurious version is known. According to this (Bl, MS Harleian 279) cakes filled with a mixture of ground dried figs, salmon and plucked eels, should be fried and served hot.
Or what about these flans: Boil skinned eels so hard that it is easy to remove the meat, and mash it with ground saffron and some wine to moisten. Make flans of this and serve them sprinkled wit sugar (The good Wife’s guide, p. 315)
Finally, there is the ‘piece de resistence’ – the much maligned turned eel. This is made by taking a fat, large eel, which you scald, skin and split along the back. Now the trick is to remove the bone, tail and head in one piece. Turn it inside out and tie it together at intervals. Now the eel should be cooked in red wine and set to cool on a towel, after which the tread can be removed gingerly. The sauce is made of a mixture of bread soaked in the redwine and grounded ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grain of Paradise and nutmeg. Tasted with verjuice and wine, the thickened sauce should be poured over the eel and served.
In a German version the cook would cleanse the eel by rubbing it with cold ash from a stove. Rubbing your hands in salt it would be easy to skin it. Now the eel should be rubbed in a mixture of chopped common sage, parsley, shredded ginger root, pepper, anise and salt. The trick would then be to warp the eel in the skin again. The easy way to cook it would be wrapping it in a piece of backing paper and the at the end grill it.
Eel at Christmas
Eel at Christmas will have been eaten allover Europe in the Middle Ages. Thus it was listed as having been served on the table of the Bishop Brask in Sweden c. 1520 together with a lot of other delicacies (the menu lists: gravlax, fried herring, ‘lutfish’ with raisins and almonds, eel in mustard, herring from Scania [especially fat], boiled small herrings [sardines?] fresh boiled fish with sauce, common ling in oil, fish from the sea, Finnish pikes, fried fish, lax from Norrbotten county with apples and nuts for dessert.
The one place, however, where eel is still eaten on Christmas Eve, is Venice. Of course, the really traditional way is to eat it after it has been cooked at Murano wrapped in hot, liquid glass. It is cooked when the glass is cold and you can break it. A more ordinary form is to cook it with Borlotti beans. You take 2 dl of dried Borlotto beans and soak them during night. After having rinsed them, cook them slowly for 1 1/2 hour. Keep half the beans intact while pulsing the other half in a food processor. Now melt butter in a large saucepan and cook an onion, some celery and a yellow carrot stirring occasionally so that it does not burn. Add garlic, the rinsed eel, water, and salt and bring to a boil and cook until done (twenty min to half an hour). Now strain some of the reduced broth and stir in the puréed beans. Use the rest of the broth to cook rice in. When done, mix into the rice the remaining beans, some butter, and grated cheese. Serve the fish (whole) elegantly displayed on top of the rice.
Eel in a Barrel
How old, the Eel in the Barrel was, nobody knows. But it seems to have been part of the fun in Venice, when it was played in the Campo San Luca. The point of the game was stick your head into a barrel with water made murky by the ink from octopus. Now the feat was to catch a slippery eel with your teeth. While it’s not exactly on one’s list of things to do in Venice, the history of the game is rather interesting. The square was adorned with damask and colourful flags. A wooden stage was erected “about three-men high.” Here a marionette in the shape of a worn-out old woman wearing a white cap on her head was displayed half-way through Lent, which is when the games were most often played.
The Medieval Kitchen. A Social History with recipes.
By Hannele Klemettilä
Reaktion Books 2012
The Good Wife’s Guide. Le Ménagier de Paris. A Medieval Household Book
Translated by Gina l. Greco and Christine M. Rose.
Cornell University Press 2009
The Medieval Kitchen.Recipes from France and Italy
By Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban and Silvanoe Serventi
University of Chicago Press 1973
Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe. A Book of Essays.
Ed. by Melitta Weiss Adamson
The Medieval Cook
By Bridget Ann Henisch
The Boydell Press 2009