The Bard’s birthday pie

ShakespeareIt’s Shakespeare’s birthday. Yes, Britain’s, and indeed probably the world’s, greatest writer will be 450 years old on the 23rd. Probably. I mean, there’s actually no record of when the Bard was born, so we don’t know when precisely his birthday is, but he was definitely baptised 450 years ago this week and, as he died on April 23rd too (in 1616), this date has also become set in the public imagination as the man from Stratford-upon-Avon’s birthday as well.

In fact, given he lived 450 years ago, we don’t know a great deal about William Shakespeare’s private life at all. There are precious few records of events in his life, his marriage, kids, death etc., and only the tiniest sample of anything actually written in his hand. Although, in another way, you could say that we know a great deal more about Shakespeare than almost any other middle-class figure of the 16th century thanks to the huge amount of research that has gone into the tiniest scraps of information about him that are available.

As a result of all this, the best way that people can really attempt to understand Shakespeare the man is through his works and, even then, it is hard to find conclusive answers to enduring questions such as his sexuality. His taste in women (or men) may remain up for debate, then, but we can perhaps see a little of his culinary taste in his work. This week I’ve been to the Yorkshire Museum to see the rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio currently on loan there and, inspired by that, I have decided to cook Shakespeare a birthday dish.

The First Folio is one of the most important books of all time. Priced originally at £1 (about £100 in today’s money), a copy stolen from Durham University in the 90s was valued at £15 million. Published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it was the first printed copy of many significant plays including The Tempest, Julius Caesar and, my personal favourite, Macbeth. Without the Folio many of these plays may have been lost to history (as indeed are at least two supposed Shakespeare compositions Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won) or, at the very least, only available in rough or incomplete forms.

Just think, without the Folio we may have been denied such excellent recipe writing as this, from Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1:

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw,
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Unfortunately, eye of newt is one of those ingredients that is just that bit tricky to get hold of these days, as, indeed, is dragon scales and the liver of a blaspheming Jew (although fillet of snake may actually be a possibility). So, I’d have to look elsewhere in the Complete Works for a more manageable recipe option.

FalstaffA large part of the appeal of Shakespeare’s works is the way that his characters represent a wide variety of classes, backgrounds and registers. It is invariably the “low” or common characters who are fixated with food and drink and, as a result, many of the references are to simple, hearty fare and, more often than not, to wine or “sack” (cheap sherry beloved of Shakespeare’s greatest glutton Sir John Falstaff).

Interestingly, one study puts the writer’s sympathies very much on the side of the haves rather than have-nots when it came to food supply. Looking at the references in Coriolanus to famine and wealthy merchants exploiting shortages for greater profit, research at Aberystwyth University pointed to how the play was written during the famine of 1607 and how Shakespeare had been pursued by government authorities in the years before this for hoarding food to sell at a profit in times of shortage as well as tax evasion.

Perhaps the most frequent, and detailed, references to food in Shakespeare come in the form of descriptions of bread, cakes and pastries and the processes involved therein. Troilus and Cressida has a number of food references (often to unappealing or badly prepared food), including Act 1, Scene 1 in which Pandarus compares the patience Troilus requires in the wooing of Cressida to the stages involved in baking:

PANDARUS: He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.
TROILUS: Have I not tarried?
PANDARUS: Ay, the grinding; but you must tarry the bolting.
TROILUS: Have I not tarried?
PANDARUS: Ay, the bolting, but you must tarry the leavening.
TROILUS: Still have I tarried.
PANDARUS: Ay, to the leavening; but here’s yet in the word ‘hereafter’ the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must  stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips.

It is in this interest in the processes of grinding, bolting, leavening, kneading and baking that we can see a Shakespeare that was obviously a fan of baked goods and this is far from the only reference. In Act 4, Scene 3 of All’s Well That Ends Well, Parolles refers to torture methods as being like: “If ye pinch me like a pasty” (as in crimping the edges as is still done today). A more unpleasant piece of pastry work than this torture reference comes in perhaps the most famous Shakespeare pie scene, the finale of Titus Andronicus. Act 5, Scene 2 has the eponymous tragic hero telling his daughter’s rapists how he plans to cook them (making a pun on how “coffin” was the common term at the time for a pastry casing) even as he commits the act:

Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads.

A pie, then, seemed to be the obvious piece of Shakespeare cooking that I could do, but, assuming I wasn’t planning on resorting to cannibalism, what should go in it?

The answer lies in another of the plays that is only available thanks to the First Folio: The Winter’s Tale. One of the Bard’s final plays, The Winter’s Tale is a bizarre sort of Shakespeare’s greatest hits dramedy, with the first half a Hamlet-esque psychological drama of dark political intrigue culminating in by far the most singular stage direction in the entire Shakespearean canon – “Exit, pursued by a bear” – while the second half is a light pastoral romantic comedy in the style of As You Like It. It is in this second half that our best option for a Shakespearean pie is introduced.

Winter's TaleIf Macbeth‘s witches speak in recipes, then The Winter’s Tale offers us Shakespeare’s take on a shopping list. Romantic heroine Perdita has been rescued on the coast of Bohemia (Bohemia is in the modern day Czech Republic and has no coast, something Ben Jonson apparently teased Shakespeare about) and raised by a shepherd and his son, the Clown. With the impending sheep shearing feast, the clown’s focus (when not on trying to understand dildo-based bawdy poetry, perhaps the first use of the term in written texts) is on buying food, rather than the unfolding romantic plot, as we see in Act 4, Scene 3:

Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on…I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates? – none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pounds of prunes, and as many of raisins o’ the sun.

Tudor ChristmasThe Clown’s ingredients give us a pretty good glimpse into the sort of feasting food that was popular in the early 1600s, so it should come as no surprise that most of the ingredients are pretty similar to my previous take on a pie of the era, a Tudor Christmas mincemeat pie, but what of the Warden Pie the Clown mentions? What would we need to make one of those?

Warden Pies originated in the Middle Ages and are a fruit pie made with warden pears, a type of the small black worcester cooking pear, first recorded as growing at the Cistercian Abbey of Warden in Bedfordshire (possibly not a popular food in Bohemia then, but geography was never something that Shakespeare paid much attention to). Actual warden pears are pretty unusual these days (there are only five trees in the area producing them), but students at Bedfordshire’s Shuttleworth College are making a determined effort to preserve them by planting more of the pear trees over the last year. Any similar pear would probably achieve a similar effect to Shakespeare’s Warden Pies, though, so I was determined to have a go.

When making my Tudor mincemeat pies, I made use of a 16th century recipe book called A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary For All Such As Delight Therein, Gathered by A.W. and, once again, this is the source of the earliest recipe for a Warden Pie, which is as follows: “Core your wardens and pare them, and perboyle them and laye them in your paste, and put in every warden where you take out the Core a Clove or twain, put to them Sugar, Ginger, Sinamon, more sinamon then ginger, make your crust very fine and somewhat thick, and bake them leisurely.”

Gervase MarkhamAnother recipe book, written closer to the time of The Winter’s Tale gives us another option, whose author is perhaps closer to the Shakespearean life than the anonymous A.W. Gervase Markham was, like Shakespeare, a poet and playwright in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as well as a mercenary soldier of fortune, horse breeder (he introduced the first Arabian horses to Britain), and expert in forestry and farming. (Googling Markham is kind of tricky, as he also has a distant relative/descendant computer programmer namesake who is the author of the blog “Hacking for Christ” in which he argued that cancer patients “will waste their cancer if they do not believe it is designed for you by God“! Oops, looks like I wasted mine then!)

Markham’s biggest stage success was with the comedy The Dumb Knight, which was performed by the Children of the King’s Revels, a Jacobean child acting troupe. One of the other writers for the troupe was Thomas Middleton, author of The Revenger’s Tragedy and one of the leading writers of the period. Middleton was collaborating with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens in this period (exact dating of Jacobean plays is pretty difficult, but a reference to Timon in one of the plays of the Children of the King’s Revels short run places them at similar times). Given the theatre world of the 1600s was this small and overlapping, it is easy to imagine Markham and Shakespeare crossing paths.

All of this shows Markham as an impressive polymath, but he would be unlikely to be remembered until today were it not for one important work written in the decade that followed The Dumb Knight and The Winter’s Tale. In 1615, Markham published one of the first examples of that middle-class domestic staple, the housewifery manual covering not just cooking, but also anything from home remedies for various ailments to dyeing and spinning wool. Country Contentments or The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to be in a Complete Woman is a fascinating insight into the skill sets that were expected of the 17th century woman, but also gives us the best possible sense of what Shakespeare’s Warden Pie might have been like.

Warden Pie RecipeMarkham’s Warden Pie recipe reads: “Take of the fairest and best Wardens, and pare them, and take out the hard chores at the top, and cut the sharp ends at the bottom flat; then boil them in White-wine and sugar, untill the sirrup grow thick: then take the wardens from the sirrup into a cleane dish, & let them coole, then set them into the coffin, and prick cloves into the tops and whole sticks of cinamon, and great store of suger, as for Pippins; then cover it, and onely reserve a vent-hole, so set it in the oven and bake it: when it is bak’t, draw it forth, and take the first sirrup in which the Wardens were boyld, and taste it, and if it be not sweet enough, then put in more suger and some rosewater, & boile it again a little, then poure it in at the vent-hole, and shake the pie wel; then take sweet butter and rose-water melted, and with it anoynt the pie-lid all over, and then strow upon it store of suger, and so set it into the oven againe a little space, and then serve it up.”

It’s probably worth noting that nowhere in Markham’s recipe is there a reference to the saffron that Shakespeare’s Clown desired to use to colour his Warden Pies, nor is there in the recipe in A Book of Cookrye. The reason for this is that the saffron was almost certainly used for colouring the pastry and recipe books of the period rarely included recipes for pastry, assuming that Jacobean cooks were well aware of how to make one.

SaffronSaffron, the stigma of the Saffron Crocus and, therefore, a tiny part of a flower that requires large scale cultivation to produce small amounts of the spice, was always expensive in the 1600s and remains so today. Just 500g of saffron requires a harvest of up to 75,000 flowers and a single gram costs around £5. In Shakespeare’s time demand for the spice was such that it was grown far more extensively in England than it is today, where the vast majority of it is imported from Iran. By Shakespeare’s life, the climate of the South and East of England had been proved the only parts of the country with a climate suitable for cultivating saffron, the legacy of which can be seen in the name of the town of Saffron Walden (somewhat damned with faint praise by its nickname, The Jewel of Essex).

Just a teaspoon of saffron was, therefore, all I needed to colour my pastry. As I talked about while making my Tudor mincemeat pie, pie dishes and cases were not yet around, so the “coffin” would have to be hand raised, which I did in the same fashion as my mincemeat pie, only adding the saffron for colour.

Pears and pastryAs for the filling, well that proved a pretty simple method. Essentially it is just pears poached in a white wine syrup. So, I peeled and cored the pears and boiled a pan of white wine, water and sugar to make a syrup to simmer the peaches in for about half an hour, before placing them inside the pastry coffin. To this, Markham’s recipe suggests adding whole spices, studding the peaches with cloves and adding sticks of cinnamon to the pie. Like the mincemeat pie or the mace and ginger on the Clown’s shopping list, these spices are indicative of special occasion flavours a little expensive for the everyday, as is the glaze of rosewater, butter and sugar that Markham suggests applying to the top of the pie.

Shakespeare PieThe finished pie itself was a pleasantly sweet filling and a yellow crumbly pastry. In many ways pie flavours haven’t changed all that much in 400 years. To our tastes today this recipe may seem quite simple, but in the diet of the 1600s it must have seemed like an incredible treat. You have to hope that all the Bard’s tax evading and food hoarding was ultimately in aid of an enjoyable slice of pie like this.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: I wonder if warden pears were stronger flavour than or modern ones. There are a few orchards still growing old varieties (mostly for tv, museums, and nutters like us), and it’d be interesting to see if there’s a difference. As it was, modern pears, especially out of season, didn’t really stand up to the stronger spices in this. Having whole cloves and cinnamon sticks in the pie meant you had to eat it carefully, but as pear pies go it was still worth it. Nice crumbly pastry and a not too sweet filling. If you’re looking for a pear pie recipe, this one is definitely worth trying.


3 thoughts on “The Charmed Pot

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  3. Pingback: A Game Of Pie | Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen

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